The film, in theaters nationwide on Aug. 5 following a limited release on July 29, follows 26-year-old Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth), a socially and sexually stunted caregiver living on the outskirts of Hollywood with her mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and sister Treina (Taylour Paige). She longs for connection after a hysterectomy in her teenage years kept her from finding romance, and begins an affair with Josh (Jon Bernthal), the parent of the special-needs child she looks after, who is married to Heath, Lena Dunham’s character.
The film explores Sarah Jo’s sexual coming-of-age, a central conceit that has drawn controversy in its portrayal. Amy Gravino, an autism sexuality advocate who said Froseth asked her to be a consultant on the film before she was “ghosted,” said Sarah Jo’s characterization falls into the category of “infantilization of people on the spectrum,” although the producers of “Sharp Stick” maintain that the character was not meant to be neurodivergent.
“Kristine had said that she believed the character was neurodivergent. In the script, this character wasn’t being called autistic, even though she very clearly was,” Gravino told Variety in January. “You can’t just say the character isn’t going to be neurodiverse; the coding is still there and it comes across that way in the writing and acting choices, even though it’s not explicitly stated.”
“Nothing about Sarah Jo was coded to suggest or convey neurodivergence,” a spokesperson for the film told Variety at the time. “In drawing this very personal portrait mined from her own experience, Lena did recognize that audiences would identify with Sarah Jo in myriad ways. This is the power of art, in this case, film. It leaves the imagination of the creator and lives in the experience of audiences — at best a very intimate and emotionally resonant experience.”
In his review of the film, Variety‘s Owen Gleiberman also took issue with the film, for reasons different from Gravino’s. “’Sharp Stick,’ in its quick verbal exchanges, its naked sexuality, its general air of busting taboos as if they were oversize balloons, is recognizably a Lena Dunham movie. But it’s the first one of her projects in which the parts don’t quite add up, because it seems as if what we’re watching hasn’t been so much created as contrived,” he wrote.
The film also stars Luka Sabbat, Scott Speedman and Ebon Moss-Bachrach. “Sharp Stick” is written and directed by Dunham.
“Sharp Stick” will be available to stream on Aug. 16. Watch the full trailer for the film below.