Sharp Stick review: Lena Dunham stumbles with a strange, tone-deaf coming-of-age

·3 min read

From her 2011 feature debut Tiny Furniture on through six seasons of Girls, Lena Dunham famously became a voice of a generation by exploring ideas about young womanhood in ways that were maybe outrageous (at least at the time) and often divisive but rarely not interesting. It's a lot harder to find a point of view, or even a point, in Sharp Stick, which premiered last night at the Sundance Film Festival. Dunham has publicly said that her purpose with the movie — about a young woman's sensual awakening in Los Angeles, more or less — is to "create a free dialogue around the complexities of female sexuality"; the result, though, is such a strange and sour misfire, so relentlessly softcore yet somehow sexless, it feels almost defiantly stripped of any meaningful message.

Besides maybe that girls in pinafores and knee socks are hot: One of Stick's more confounding choices is to center the story on Sarah Jo (Norwegian American actress Kristine Froseth) who says she's 26 but seems to have a mental age much younger. A lithe, pillow-lipped naif who works as a companion for disabled children, she shovels yogurt in her mouth like a milk-starved toddler and dresses in a conspicuously twee series of cottage-core ruffles and hair bows that the camera lingers on lovingly. (The resemblance to Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby doesn't entirely feel like a coincidence).

Her mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a blowsy five-time divorcee, makes some kind of income collecting rent on their shabby bungalows; her older sister (Zola's Taylour Paige) is building her brand as an influencer, one butt-clap selfie at a time. But mostly they sit around in loungewear, talking gleefully and explicitly about men and how to get them, with Sarah Jo as their wide-eyed witness. Her own level of experience becomes more clear when she bluntly propositions the father (Jon Bernthal) of the little boy she cares for, pleading with him to unburden her of the virginity she's held on to since undergoing a radical hysterectomy at 15. Josh, a sweet, shaggy slacker who apparently lives off the considerable income of his heavily pregnant real estate broker wife (Dunham), resists at first then quickly succumbs, undone by her insistence (and all those knee socks).

Sundance Film Festival Preview
Sundance Film Festival Preview

Sundance Institute 'Sharp Stick'

The journey of self-discovery that follows through frantic broom-closet quickies and golden-hour afternoons might make more sense if Sarah Jo wasn't such a wildly inconsistent character, cheerfully reciting unusual penis shapes with her mom one minute, then playing a holy fool who's never heard of oral sex the next. Her learning curve is steep, but when the affair with Josh is inevitably exposed, her response to his rejection is to become a kind of sexual conquistador, working down a literal checklist — there are magic markers, and construction paper — of erotic activities more likely to be scrawled on the bathroom walls of gas stations and junior highs than actually pursued in real life.

That leads to a series of anonymous online encounters and a burgeoning crush on an affable, neck-tattooed porn star (Scott Speedman, doing what seems like his best Justin Timberlake impression). Her list will also be conquered eventually, though with a doggedness that seems less like pleasure seeking than a grim determination to complete compulsory dental work. Froseth is physically lovely, and actors like Bernthal and Leigh are too good not to drill down on the finer points of their winky L.A. archetypes. But if there's supposed to be some kind of deeper empowerment in the mere fact of Dunham's female gaze, it doesn't manifest any differently than say, Roman Polanski's or Larry Clark's. The movie's last frames ask us to believe that Sarah Jo has finally, ecstatically found herself; by then, whatever reason we have for watching is already long lost. Grade: C–

Follow EW's ongoing coverage out of Sundance here.

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