Sundance 2022

Sharp Stick review – Lena Dunham coming-of-ager leans on lowbrow hijinks

The Girls creator's second film as writer-director is oddly impersonal, devoid of the smart observations that made her famous

Lena Dunham rose to prominence off the back of toe-curling sex scenes that marked her HBO series Girls as a more grounded approach to dating in New York than Sex and the City, the show to which it was forever compared. More than a decade since her last feature directorial effort, and she’s moved to the West Coast for Sharp Stick, a coming-of-age story that simultaneously aims to highlight just how embarrassing the very concept of a sexual awakening is while appearing to satirise the very concept of a female gaze, told largely through cringe inducing encounters that make her groundbreaking series seem tame.

But this is Dunham’s least assured project to date, struggling to balance its broadest lowbrow comic beats (that hew far closer to the Judd Apatow produced comedies of the late 2000s than any of her actual Apatow collaborations) with an earnest tale of sexual self-discovery. If her work has so far been defined by how much it felt like she was oversharing, dramatising the journal entries you’d never want anybody to see, then her latest feels like she’s deliberately creating outrageous scenarios to try recapture her earlier status as pop culture’s prominent teller of millennial sexscapades. It’s her first work to feel oddly impersonal, and for someone whose brand has been built on telling uncomfortable truths, this can’t help but feel like a misfire.

The film is very loosely inspired by Dunham’s attempts to process having a hysterectomy in 2018, but any aspects of autobiography begin and end there; she’s even admitted that during the writing process it stopped being about her altogether. Instead, we’re introduced to Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth), a 26-year-old whose own sexual awakening was paused a decade prior after going through a hysterectomy, but seems to have found a salvation in Josh (Jon Bernthal), the father of the disabled child she cares for. A harmless himbo, played by Bernthal in a performance that borders on becoming a distracting Channing Tatum impression, Sarah Jo easily grinds him down into cheating on his 9 months pregnant wife (Dunham), and starts discovering the pleasures of the flesh.

The one aspect where Sharp Stick excels is in its juxtaposition of how we romanticise past sexual encounters against their more awkward reality; in the moment showing Josh as only caring about her pleasure, before pulling back to reveal far less satisfying encounters for both parties later on. In the film’s second half, this specificity transforms into a broader sex comedy in the Superbad vein, which doesn’t attempt to fold its puerile aspects into a more meaningful coming-of-age story. Dunham aims for the heights of Marielle Heller’s Diary of a Teenage Girl, but there doesn’t seem to be any genuine insight into this equally unglamorous sexual awakening. Instead, it’s mostly an excuse for a barrage of lazy sex gags (admittedly, I did laugh at the sight of a hook-up app titled “Clitty Clitty Bang Bang”), and one prolonged bit about porn for the female gaze that was done better in a 30 Rock gag years ago.

Sharp Stick could have offered a unique look at overcoming past traumas to rediscover sexuality later in life, but Dunham’s approach lets the tiresome lowbrow hijinks overshadow any significant character development. For a writer who previously mined great drama from the most embarrassing intimate moments imaginable, it’s hard not to view this as a severe disappointment.

Sharp Stick was screened as part of the Sundance Film Festival 2021. A UK release date has yet to be set.

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