Speaking of Lena Dunham in 2022 requires a disclaimer. After starring in a string of controversies in the later 2010s, the filmmaker and actress had been relegated to the “shunned” and “canceled” departments of public opinion. Before all of that, however, there was a point in time when Dunham was thought to be the voice of her generation. The HBO show Girls, which she created, wrote, and starred in, was at the height of its popularity. She won several Golden Globes, published a New York Times Best Seller, and made the TIME 100 list.
For its time, Dunham’s work was honest to a shocking degree. Girls explored womanhood in the previously untraversed space between Gossip Girl and Sex and the City. The show didn’t depict an aspirational lifestyle; it showed flawed characters going through all the ugly, sometimes unremarkable parts of being in their 20s (and middle-class, and white, one must acknowledge). The show was groundbreaking for its frank, sometimes graphic portrayals of sex, abortions, drug use, and mental health issues.
Dunham continues to explore the taboo and provocative in her latest film Sharp Stick, which premiered virtually at Sundance Film Festival in January. Sharp Stick is Dunham’s first major project in years, and although its structure and characters are muddled at times, the film is an incisive study of sex and sexuality in the internet age, and the compulsion to collect experiences that many young women feel.
Sharp Stick follows Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth), a 26-year-old virgin who has felt out of touch with her body since she had an emergency hysterectomy at age fifteen. The timid Sarah Jo wears baby-blue cardigans and pink knee-high socks, and acts more like a middle schooler than a grown woman. She lives in a Los Angeles home with her sister Treina (Taylour Paige) and mother Marilyn (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who rotate men in and out of their lives shamelessly. Sarah Jo listens adoringly to their sex stories, and yearns for one of her own. She eventually decides to act on her desire to explore her sexuality. Her object of affection? Josh (Jon Bernthal), the father of the special needs child she takes care of, whose wife happens to be pregnant.
After an awkward come-on, Sarah Jo falls into a fairytale affair with Josh, who calls her beautiful, takes her on vacation, and introduces her to psychedelics and blowjobs. He makes her feel sexy and desired for the first time, and naturally, she gets attached. It’s the rosy and galactic romance she never thought she’d experience, and it’s reciprocated for all she knows. When it all comes crashing down Sarah Jo is crushed, as is the romanticized version of Josh she’s created in her mind. In classic Dunham fashion, the character of Josh is simultaneously despicable and understandable. Call him a horny opportunist, heartless cheater, or family man—he’s human, and therefore a mess. Dunham’s ability to craft prickly yet endearing characters shines in this film.
Post-heartbreak, Sarah Jo finds solace in porn, especially videos starring Vance LeRoy (Scott Speedman). The film’s spotlight on the role of pornography in the modern woman’s sexual awakening reflects Dunham’s view that porn can be liberating and important for shaping people’s identity. Like last year’s Red Rocket, Sharp Stick finds the humor and poetry in porn, and is hopefully part of a cultural shift that sees pornography and its stars discussed in the mainstream.
Sarah Jo begins to wonder if Josh left because she was bad at sex. She embarks on a revenge-slash-redemption mission by making herself an A-to-Z bucket list of sexual achievements including “double penetration” and “necrophilia,” written with color markers on construction paper and hung on her bedroom wall. She joins the dating app Clitty Clitty Bang Bang, and starts checking off these achievements with strangers.
Sarah Jo’s dating app escapades—shown in rapid succession, with all of her partners faceless and Sarah Jo herself appearing uninterested—are purely transactional. The endless scroll of prospects available for instant gratification reduces the meaning of these interactions, and by extension, these people. “How do you get over them so fast?” Sarah Jo asks when her sister recovers from a bad breakup in no time. “There are so many of them out there,” Treina responds. As their mother says, “There’s always another one, and another one, and another one.”
Sarah Jo’s desire to complete the list reflects a school of thought in sexual liberation ideology that measures sex not by enjoyment but numbers and extremity; not as experiences to live in but as stories to tell your friends. The film does not attempt to moralize sex—Dunham is acutely aware that being a good person has nothing to do with how much sex you’re having—but it disputes the notion that sex is an achievement-based sport one can master. Sarah Jo’s bucket-list perception of sex echoes the dichotomy of pursuing accomplishment versus happiness that Dunham has explored in her other work.
In the second season of Girls, Dunham’s character Hannah has an episode-long whirlwind romance with a wealthy, recently separated doctor named Joshua (who refuses to let her call him Josh). Near the end of the episode, Hannah has an epiphany: “I made a promise, such a long time ago, that I was going to take in experiences, all of them, so that I could tell other people about them and maybe save them. But it gets so tiring, trying to take in all the experiences for everybody, letting anyone say anything to me. Then I came here, and I see you, and you’ve got the fruit in the bowl and the fridge with the stuff. I realize I’m not different. I want what everyone wants. I want all the things. I just want to be happy.”
Hannah, a writer, felt the need to live out out-of-this-world experiences to memorialize in essays and books. This manifests as doing coke because her editor told her to, staying in a relationship in which she’s unhappy, and propositioning her creepy boss. She doesn’t necessarily want these experiences, but feels obligated to have them so she can tell the tales to her readers. In a pivotal moment, she realizes that happiness is more important than collecting stories. Sarah Jo’s completionist philosophy is similar to that of Hannah’s, but Sarah Jo navigates this learning curve in a much subtler, sweeter way that is a joy to watch unfold.
The film’s sharp commentary is unfortunately bogged down by its loose structure and questionable writing. The film teases themes like sexual trauma, motherhood, and performance, but these ideas are ultimately left unexplored. The characterization of Sarah Jo is sometimes infantilizing, and borders on the absurd and ridiculous when one considers her upbringing in a sexually liberated household with stepfathers coming in and out.
The performances are strong across the board, with Kristine Froseth’s speech and body language truly embodying that of a sheltered, mousy woman who feels dissociated from her body. Taylour Paige and Jennifer Jason Leigh steal every scene they’re in and are severely underutilized. Sharp Stick functions better as a vehicle for commentary than a fully-fledged narrative.
Sharp Stick is a penetrating look at sexual awakening in an age of hyperawareness and overabundance. The urge to do more, be more, and experience more comes apart when accomplishment and joy misalign; the ease of instant gratification ultimately reduces interactions to an infinite scroll of transactions. This provocative film will surely be divisive come its wide release—but Dunham is no stranger to controversy.