In a director’s statement accompanying the screener of Sharp Stick, Lena Dunham outlines her key intentions in making the film, the most prominent being her desire to create a more empowering and positive depiction of a sexually active young woman. “Men get Alfie,” she says, “a free wheeling Brit with a theme song and a remake. Women get Repulsion.” The former example doesn’t stand out as particularly apt; although it contains tonally brighter elements than the latter, Alfie still ends on a pretty big down note, having Alfie’s self-centered womanizing as a means of self-actualization lead to rather negative consequences for his psyche. Repulsion does hit the mark, however, in that it presents a woman so terrified and disgusted by sex that all carnal encounters amount to rape, a result of implied childhood sexual abuse at the hands of an older male relative. Not so “sex positive”, maybe.
Putting aside the fact that sex, indeed, is not always positive, countless films have taken a note from Repulsion when centering a woman’s sexuality. Often times, a high rate of sexual activity spells out problems for women in film, whether they be the consequent slayings common in horror movies or the pre-existing traumas that inevitably lead to spiritual disintegration or bloody vengeance. The way Sharp Stick dispels the notion of trauma, low self-esteem, or selfishness as integral to promiscuity is antithetical to both Repulsion and Alfie. So while the personal and artistic mission is well defined, the comparison being made is only partially cogent. In that same way, there seems to be a slight discrepancy between the action in Sharp Stick and what it signifies.
Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth), an exceptionally pure and inexperienced young woman, works as a babysitter for Zach (Liam Michael Saux), a boy with Down’s Syndrome. Zach’s parents represent a familiar dichotomy in frustrated heterosexual couples. Heather (Dunham), is overworked and stretched thin with a demanding job and another baby on the way. Josh (Jon Bernthal), is a well-meaning but inconsiderate doofus, completely unattuned to the needs of his family.
Sarah Jo feels like the kind of character Todd Solondz might dream up. Her name comes off as stagy and emphatically wholesome sounding, her behavior archetypically innocent and pure, and her appearance—modest dresses and naturally long hair—make her a kind of Pollyanna to her more liberated mother, Marilyn (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and sister, Treina (Taylour Paige). Underneath though, she’s a closeted sexpot, deeply curious but inexperienced and almost desperate to experience every sex act imaginable in a quest to complete her conception of womanhood.
Dunham provides Sarah Jo with a medical history much like her own, including a case of endometriosis that resulted in a radical hysterectomy, ensuring that sex remains purely recreational for her while also providing the foundation for her struggle with defining what it means to be a woman. Marilyn, a self-mythologizing new-age type whose identity rests heavily on her being a mother, and Treina, an aspiring TikTok star who constantly presents the sexual side of herself, stand as Sarah Jo’s only examples, and she doesn’t really fit either mold.
Sarah Jo’s sexual instincts bring her to seduce Josh, who initially feigns reluctance but over the course of one awkward tryst in a laundry room becomes an enthusiastic adulterer. This part of the story becomes the major thread, and it’s here that the film’s events are somewhat incongruous with Dunham’s stated intent. Undoubtedly her experiences with Josh form a part of Sarah Jo’s self-actualization, but that doesn’t mean they’re free of consequences. The affair itself can’t avoid a certain illicitness because Sarah Jo harms another woman to carry it out, and finds herself in volatile circumstances because of it.
Everything in the film outside of this development is what makes the point stick. Sarah Jo becomes enamored with Vance Leroy (Scott Speedman), an adult film star whose niche seems to be in emotional, “for women” porn, and his encouragement leads to her greatest moment of self-acceptance. She uses internet fetish sites to invite an assembly of strange men over to explore the entire sexual spectrum. Sarah Jo ends up with the experience and confidence in herself as a sexual being that she needs to assuage her doubts, and virtually no bad experiences come with it, aside from that first, messy foray with Josh, which she likens to the “sharp stick” of a needle going in before getting medicine. The scenes between Sarah Jo, Marliyn, and Treina also stand out, especially as Leigh’s and Paige’s casting brings the ethos of messy sexual exploration present in Fast Times at Ridegmont High and Zola, respectively.
There’s a fair amount to critique in Sharp Stick, but it has received, perhaps, an uneven amount of derision versus serious engagement. For whatever reason, Dunham seems to have fervent detractors and somewhat silent supporters, which often leads to an outright dismissal of her interesting, albeit flawed, body of work. And that constitutes more of a loss than people think. Despite the messiness and occasional incoherence, Sarah Jo’s story in Sharp Stick makes for a refreshing and beguiling experience. | Nic Champion