Over the course of six seasons, Lena Dunham’s HBO hit series “Girls” was beset by plenty of complaints and controversies, but aside from the steady stream of hot takes on a show about four shiftless white girls in NYC, there was always one problem too big, too true, and far too easy to ignore: These girls never changed. And while Dunham’s third feature film, “Sharp Stick,” is the product of a decade-plus of new knowledge, experiences, and obsessions for its creator, too often it feels like a reaction to that very criticism. You want change in your characters? You’ve got it, even if it doesn’t make a lick of sense, even if it shifts by the minute, even if it all seems invented to serve fleeting moments, even if it all feels like, well, a sharp stick right to the arm, pain in service to a very flimsy idea of healing and honesty.
Dunham has never been afraid to tackle the messy side of sex — again, six seasons of “Girls” can tell you that, though this critic has never quite forgotten the sex-inside-a-giant-metal-pipe scene from “Tiny Furniture,” and yes, that is a compliment — but in her apparent quest to get gritty, grimy, and real, she’s shed much of the texture of real life, real people. Dunham has always asserted her interest in exploring “unlikable” characters, and while the star of “Sharp Stick” (Kristine Froseth, going full-throttle) isn’t precisely unlikable, the problem is much deeper: She doesn’t really seem like much of a character either. Yes, let’s explore human desire, but what is that without an actual human at the center?
When the film opens, the possibility that Sarah Jo (Froseth) is meant to be such a sieve feels like a choice. She’s certainly different than the other two people in her life — her brittle mother Marilyn (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and her wannabe influencer older sister Treina (Taylour Paige) — and as Dunham toggles between the grotesque (the number of times Froseth is tasked with eating yogurt in the most revolting manner is truly unsettling) and the fairy tale–leaning (Sarah Jo’s sartorial tastes run toward the Amish, but her plucky spirit is pure Snow White), “SJ” begins to take shape. Wide-eyed and innocent to the point of feeling more like a child than an adult, Sarah Jo is 26 and still a virgin, though her capacity to care for others is seemingly endless.
Shooting in early 2021, Dunham ably weaves in plenty of real-world details (or, more precisely, our real new world) that keep things grounded. Face masks are commonplace, Sarah Jo is taking Zoom classes (fellow filmmaker Janicza Bravo appears as a soothing teacher), but those elements only serve to further highlight the divide between believable and outsized. Sure, maybe someone like Sarah Jo doesn’t live in the real world, but plenty of real people suffer from that same problem. So why doesn’t Sarah Jo seem real?
Ostensibly inspired by her mother and sister’s heinous observations about love, Sarah Jo takes it upon herself to pursue the only adult man in her orbit: Josh (Jon Bernthal), the father of Zach, the young boy with Down syndrome (Liam Saux) that she cares for during her daytime hours. Sarah Jo might be cloistered — though both Marilyn and Treina are not — and a grievous injury during her teen years has stunted her, but nothing we’ve learned about her previously would indicate that this caring, quiet woman is going to throw so many lives in disarray in order to bang a married man whose entire look (mop-topped, hideous sneakers, oversized jeans) seems inspired by ’90s-era middle school boys.
It’s not just that the power dynamic between Sarah Jo and Josh is stretched to horrible ends from the start, but that Dunham leans so very far into it. Sarah Jo, when she’s not embracing her own desires and learning to love sexual pleasure, is so vague, so innocent, so wide-eyed that the pair’s interactions feel more like violations than anything else. Even sex scenes in which Sarah Jo seems to be enjoying herself — and Dunham’s ability to direct sex scenes, from the romantic to the revolting, remains one of her primary skills behind the camera — feel so deeply wrong, so not at all rooted in even the barest of coming of age stories that they nearly require turning away from. This is more than messy.
Attempts to ride the film through its own uncomfortable wavelength do offer some treats, even if they all come with caveats. The second half of “Sharp Stick” is very different than the first, though its best idea — that Sarah Jo can somehow win back Josh by learning how to do every sex act under the sun — is a concept already done with more humor and heart in Maggie Carey’s 2013 “The To Do List.” Still, when Dunham goes for straight comedy, it’s very funny indeed. Her ability to spotlight rising talent is strong (actress and influencer Tommy Dorfman embodies both these ideas, turning in a delightful performance in a minimum of time). Dunham has a real knack for writing dialogue that feels real, which makes it all the more jarring when she dips back into the weirder, unmoored portions of her story. Whiplash eventually becomes the theme of the entire film.
Eventually, Sarah Jo’s association between sex and love — a fair enough idea, but one that never makes sense for Sarah Jo to arrive at on her own — leads her down a rollicking path of pornography, hook-up websites, and total misery (we’re miserable, too). At least Sarah Jo is taking her own life into her hands, making her own mistakes, searching for her own joy, but even that feels put-on, fake, changeable to the point of disbelief, a sharp stick to the eye, never to the heart.
“Sharp Stick” premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.