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In Lena Dunham’s ‘Sharp Stick,’ Gen Z Sexuality Pokes at Porn Culture

Dunham's work uses the language of cinema to grapple with porn's effect on contemporary sexuality with humor and honesty.

Kristine Froseth and Jon Bernthal appear in Sharp Stick by Lena Dunham, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

“Sharp Stick”

Sundance

[Editor’s note: The following story contains light spoilers for “Sharp Stick.”]

There’s been a lot of panic lately about whether or not Gen Z is having enough sex. Based on a few studies that first appeared in 2016, the handwringing headlines include BuzzFeed declaring Gen Z Is Having Less Sex Than Previous Generations, Newsweek asking What’s Driving Gen Z’s Aversion to Sex?, and The Guardian dubbing it Gen Z’s Sex Recession.

Gen Z encompasses those born between 1996 and 2012, making the youngest Zoomers 10 and the oldest 26 years old, which also means that the evolving reasons for this supposed downturn are mostly still conjecture. The Guardian suggests it’s a good thing, with a growing awareness around consent leading to a “quality over quantity” attitude. One study found a correlation between reduced alcohol consumption and reduced casual sex. Others have blamed helicopter parents.

As the unofficial documentarian of Millennial sexuality, especially as it pertained to young women with her hit HBO show “Girls,” it’s natural that Lena Dunham would be curious about the next generation. Coming up at a time when “sex positivity” became synonymous with feminist liberation, the characters in “Girls” often found themselves in compromising situations in their effort to be seen as “chill” by the men in their lives. Whether it was crawling on the floor or directing a cum shot to a certain part of the body, Dunham used her subversive dark humor to draw back the curtain on Millennial sexual practices, revealing the not-so-liberated side of performative sexuality.

It’s clear that Dunham, like many people her age, has been shaped by the ubiquity of internet porn, in ways most of us still don’t fully comprehend. Though rarely overtly critical of porn, her work exists in conversation with it, and she is one of the few filmmakers who seem ready to admit that women watch porn, too.

A slate of recent films about the porn industry and sex work, such as “Zola” and “Pleasure,” seem to be changing that narrative. Unsurprisingly, both hail from women filmmakers (Janicza Bravo and Ninja Thyberg).

In “Sharp Stick,” her first feature film since her 2010 breakout debut “Tiny Furniture,” Dunham examines the influence of porn on a highly impressionable Gen Z woman. The film stars Kristine Froseth as Sarah Jo, a comically naive 26-year-old who begins an affair with a woefully childish married man (Jon Bernthal).

Though an intensely sheltered virgin, Sarah Jo has long been exposed to frank discussions of sex through her mother Marilyn (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and sister Treina (Taylour Paige). While Treina obsesses over her latest fling, Marilyn recounts her promiscuous youth with the kind of disaffected ruefulness that Jason Leigh practically invented. “After about 20 years, you’re never gonna wanna do it again,” her mother warns.

Determined to lose her virginity, Sarah Jo abruptly approaches Josh (Bernthal) for sex. After a radical hysterectomy left her with a scar down her belly, she confesses haplessly: “I don’t feel my age and I don’t feel my body.” Apparently moved by her obvious pain, the two begin an affair. Lasting less than thirty seconds at first, their sex is awkward and hardly titillating. Dunham has a knack for dismantling the sex scene down to its requisite parts and jumbling it back together into something unwieldy and strange. In her hands, the camera’s normally fetishizing gaze becomes embarrassingly pathetic. She is attempting to use the patriarchy’s tools to dismantle the house.

Which is not to say there’s nothing sexy in “Sharp Stick.” In Josh, Dunham has created another version of the lovable oaf — an older, dumbed down version of the role that gave Adam Driver a career. As in real life, Dunham’s male characters are deeply flawed, but irresistibly fun.

Josh is adoring and gentle with his special needs son Zach (Liam Michel Saux), and he bursts into any room with a forceful energy. Like a grown-up teenager, he sports a shaggy Jordan Catalano hairdo and wears Jordan 1s. His muscular back, butt, and legs feature prominently in the sex scenes, and the curve of his outstretched frame takes on feminine sensuality in one close-up. In contrast, Sarah Jo is always clothed, whether in a white nightgown or a tube top.

Once Josh inevitably spurns her, Sarah Jo is determined to learn all she can about sex, turning — of course — to the internet.

She makes a giant to-do list of all the sex acts she’s seen in porn that she wants to complete, marking each one with a check box. In colorful marker she writes things like “Rimming,” “Blow Job,” “Anal,” and “Gangbang.” But her true discovery is the feminist porn star Vance Leroy (Scott Speedman), an inked up beefcake with a scar on his cheek who tells women how much he respects them before every scene. “I feel so connected to you,” he says to one scene partner. “I just wanna say I was raised with sisters, and I feel that strength in you.”

Dunham’s natural humor shines through in Vance, and he’s one of her funniest characters to date. For someone who makes movies about women, she sure writes hilarious men. While Vance Leroy probably isn’t the answer to society’s porn addiction, he’s a hell of a lot more exciting than most so-called “feminist porn.”

Gen Z may be having less sex, but let’s hope they’re having as much fun as Vance Leroy.

Utopia releases “Sharp Stick” in theaters on Friday, July 29.

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