Let’s talk about Lena Dunham. Tiny Furniture (2010)—which she wrote, directed and starred in—set the bar for ultra-indie explorations of the lives of women, Millennial-style. In it, she portrays a recent college graduate who has moved back in with her mother (Laurie Simmons, Dunham’s real-life mom) and sister (Grace Dunham), and who is now almost ready to face adult life, on her own terms and nobody else’s.
Dunham’s Creative Nonfiction (2009) took the same first-person approach to a similar character at an earlier stage, as college student Ella (Lena Dunham again) tries to reconcile her tangled love life with her budding writing career. For the hit HBO series Girls (2012-2017), actor/co-writer/co-producer Dunham not only explained her generation to a wide cable audience but introduced a full house of young actors—Zosia Mamet, Adam Driver, Gaby Hoffman, Corey Stoll, Jemima Kirke, et al.—to viewers who might prefer a night of little-screen binge-watching at home as an alternative to visiting the local art house.
None of the above pics is exactly a lightweight snack. Dunham’s films are talky, messy and prickly with dissatisfied self-consciousness. All of them are notable for Dunham’s on-screen intensity and for her headline-grabbing screenplays, firmly on the outspoken sex-positive feminist side of the street. Sharp Stick is her latest, the story of a late-blooming young woman trying her best to leave the nest. As always, feel free to trace Dunham’s typical narrative arc in terms of her socially conscious public life.
After only two minutes of observing Sarah Jo (played by Norwegian move-over Kristine Froseth), we can see that she’s a complicated individual. Sarah Jo, who’s 26 but sometimes behaves as if she were 13, lives with her stoner mom Marilyn (Jennifer Jason Leigh, ideally cast) and her stepsister Treina (Taylour Paige), younger but more worldly, a social media devotee.
Their family life features “origin story” sessions and Marilyn’s non-stop reflections on herself, alongside the standard sitcom sibling banter. Sarah Jo tends to think a step or two ahead of Treina, and the older sister’s perennial number-one topic is her own sexuality, or lack thereof. Curiously for a family that dwells in 2022 urban America, Sarah Jo is a virgin—that condition is explained in dialogue as the result of a hysterectomy in her teen years.
Sharp Stick would be a stimulating family drama with those ingredients alone, but Dunham and her cast have more on their minds than navel-gazing. Sarah Jo has a day job of sorts, minding the young son of a neighboring family, with writer-director-actor Dunham as the mom and exec-producer Jon Bernthal as the boy’s loosey-goosey dad Josh, who should never be put in charge of an innocent young woman.
At this point, Sarah Jo is finally ready to turn her adolescent sexual fantasies into reality. For reasons known only to her, she focuses on Josh, in a queasy-making “exploratory” love scene. How could a 26 year old be so naïve? Her self-esteem issues are overwhelming. We spend the first hour of the film gritting our teeth because we know Sarah Jo is going to end up crying. Or will she? She does not seem remotely ready for what happens next.
Dunham gleefully pushes a row of hot buttons here. Our heroine seems to be a victim of parental mismanagement. At least two of the adults, Josh and selfish mom Marilyn, are revealed to be emotional infants. Sarah Jo freely samples grownup sex and finds it, uh, somewhat lacking.
Internet porn rears its ugly head, as do prostitution and various recreational drugs. Does this movie need a “sensitivity viewer?” Best line in the film, Sarah Jo on growing up among her mother’s many boyfriends: “It’s like one big denim lap.”
Sharp Stick is not the type of youth-market sitcom in which you can turn your mind off and passively follow along. It’s as rough and sticky as life itself. That’s why we like Lena Dunham.