For a decade, Lena Dunham has kept more than busy, executive producing TV series like “Camping” and “Generation” and putting out her memoir. Yet she’s been notably selective about her main slate of projects, and “Sharp Stick,” which premiered tonight at the Sundance Film Festival, is her third major act. The first was “Tiny Furniture,” the 2010 movie that launched her, and it was a gem: the portrait of a wayward young New York striver, played by Dunham, told on an unusual level of lacerating honesty. When I saw it I thought: There’s something about how this filmmaker views her lead character — with open eyes, showing us her dreams but also, in close-up, all her flaws — that cuts against the grain not just of Hollywood but of so much indie-film piety.
Dunham’s second act was “Girls,” and that was a one-series revolution: not the first HBO show to feel “like a movie,” but the first to feel like it was beating the independent-film world at its own game. By shifting her allegiance, so early in her career, from big screen to small, Dunham anticipated the streaming paradigm we’re in now — and “Girls” was also, of course, just a fantastic series, disarmingly funny and microscopically observant about the knowing self-delusions of the millennial state of mind. Even if you weren’t in the demo, the show was chock-full of characters who felt like projections of so many of us.
All of which is to say that the bar for “Sharp Stick” is high, because that’s where Lena Dunham’s track record of artistry has put it. It’s the first movie she has written and directed since “Tiny Furniture” (as an actor, she gives herself a supporting role this time), and with all the clout she now has in the entertainment industry, you might expect it to be an ambitious statement, made on a major budget with an oversize dream cast.
Yet maybe to deflect that demon of expectation, Dunham has made “Sharp Stick” as a scaled-down venture, a tossed-off sketch of a movie, shot during the pandemic with the same kind of utilitarian aesthetic that marks any number of much lower-profile Sundance entries. Her breezy craft as a filmmaker is on display; so are her impulses as a provocateur. For this is a movie that, in just 86 minutes, drops in on such topics as youthful hysterectomy (Dunham underwent one in 2018 due to her ongoing battle with endometriosis), mothers who bombard their children with the sexualized oversharing of someone in a bad therapy session, and the ins and outs (in every sense) of online pornography. Toss in a heroine who’s a 26-year-old virgin with the personality of someone 12 years her junior, who goes on a rapid-fire bender of experience that feels like it’s out of some A24 version of “Breaking Amish,” and you’ve got the recipe for…well, a conversation piece.
“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. Dunham, at various points, seems to be asking: What if I made a movie about this? And this??!! And THIS??!! The answer is that she has made a movie in which you feel her desire to get a rise out of you more than you actually feel connected to anything onscreen.
The heroine, Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth), may be in her mid-20s, but in spirit she’s very much a girl, with a MacBook decorated by stars and kitty-cat faces, a voice of sugary flower-child innocence, and a tentative manner that marks her as the very quintessence of a waif. She has grown up on the outskirts of Hollywood along with her temperamentally opposite sister, Treina (Taylour Paige), an aspiring influencer whose booty dancing in the opening scene announces that this is not going to be a demure movie; and their mother, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, laying on the L.A. jadedness with a poison-tongued comedy as wry as it is theatrical. This wreck of a matriarch, who manages their gray-stucco apartment complex with the scrubby plants on the outside, has been married and divorced five times. But she’s also a New Age flake who has fused her failure at relationships with her leftover ’70s “philosophy” to create a toxic brew of advice for her daughters. Namely: Go out, have your kicks, do whatever you want, but don’t ever expect those men to stick around.
That’s part of why Sarah Jo is so withdrawn. The other reason, as we learn, is that she underwent a life-saving radical hysterectomy when she was 15, and it has literally scarred her; she scratches the marks from the procedure on her lower abdomen as if they were itches from hell. Sarah is working as a special-needs caregiver for Zach (Liam Michel Saux), whose parents are about to have another child. They’re played by Dunham, as an overworked real-estate broker who takes out her frustrations on her husband, and Jon Bernthal, who plays Josh, the husband, as a stay-at-home slacker who’s like Paul Rudd’s Valley Dude brother. He’s a harmless goof, but we can see that he’s sexy enough to be trouble.
Sarah Jo is drawn to him with a purpose — she wants, at last, to lose her virginity. But also because it sets up the kind of reckless situation that Dunham thrives on. Their sizzling affair is the best part of the movie, because it flows like life. It’s people making bad decisions in a recognizable and entertaining way. And the joke, of course, is that all the erotic energy Sarah Jo has been tamping down comes busting out of her. Once she sleeps with Josh, she can’t get enough.
Jon Bernthal is a captivating chameleon of an actor (I had to remind myself that this past year alone he has played the ruthless Johnny Soprano and the genial tennis coach Rick Macci), and he makes Josh a well-realized doofus-scoundrel, maybe a bit in the tradition of Adam Driver’s neurotic stud on “Girls.” And Kristine Froseth, whose apple-cheeked elegance suggests the young Joni Mitchell playing Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” enacts Sarah Jo’s painful shyness and subsequent erotic awakening with uncorny conviction.
But where is all this going? The affair turns out to be merely the setup for the rest of the film, in which Josh introduces Sarah Jo to the universe of online porn, and she becomes an instant convert. This is clearly a good subject for a movie; Dunham should have made a full-fledged drama about it. But the last half hour of “Sharp Stick” plays, more than anything else, like a cooked-up episode. Turned on to porn, Sarah tries to dunk herself, almost literally overnight, in hardcore experience. She connects with strangers online, she makes an alphabetical list of all the outrageous activities she wants to try (A for anal, B for bukkake, C for creampie…), and she forms an attachment to an adult-film star, Vince (Scott Speedman), covered in bad-boy tattoos. She seeks him out, and he responds and turns out to be…an aggro porn stud with a feminist heart of gold.
I didn’t buy any of this. Not really. And I think that’s because it’s all a vehicle for what Dunham presents as her Big Message: a well-meaning but overly facile manifesto about sex positivity and the importance of cutting down on sexual anxiety in the age of online exhibitionism, all delivered in the movie by the most ironically wrong messenger you could imagine. Dunham, by the end of “Sharp Stick,” seems to be trying to speak directly to her fans — to help them, to give them the advice they need. But that’s not what a good movie does. A good movies leads us through an experience authentic enough to take us out of ourselves. “Sharp Stick” winds up coming off like Lena Dunham’s version of a late-period Todd Solondz film. It pokes and prods the audience with the showoff naughtiness of its “incorrect” conceits, and then, in the guise of liberation, it strands you.