“Sharp Stick 2022.” At the height of the global pandemic, quarantines and loneliness have become widespread for many working artists in Hollywood. That same isolation gave writer-director Lena Dunham the reflection she needed to create her latest movie, Sharp Stick, after an 11-year hiatus.
Returning to the big screen to once again lend her voice to feminism with regards to sexual liberation and emotional growth, Dunham’s latest exploits women’s desires within a non-judgmental framework. Yet something keeps the narrative from greatness. Sharp Stick is charming with great performances, but the lopsided script doesn’t live up to its full potential.
Sharp Stick: Movie Review
Kristine Froseth plays Sarah Jo, a naïve 26-year-old woman living with her mother Marilyn (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and sister Treina (Taylour Paige). Desperate to be seen and sick of her mundane routine, Sarah Jo begins an affair with her older employer, Josh (Jon Bernthal). But when things turn from simple and comfortable to complicated and toxic, Sarah Jo must decide for herself what it means to be sexually liberated and independent. In the process, he will have to experience loss, confusion, and heartbreak.
Lena Dunham’s movie begins as a charming assessment of self-discovery and body acceptance. However, over time, a thinly written story develops that doesn’t quite make sense and falls short of its potential. Through Sarah Jo, Dunham preaches sexual awakening and learning to be comfortable in your own skin without judgment. However, the way she frames these concepts is problematic.
Sarah Jo, for example, learns about her sexual needs as a result of an affair. But from a writer who has historically preached feminism, most often through humor, how does Dunham expect viewers to leave all judgment behind when her main character initiates an affair and ruins another woman’s livelihood and family in the process? I don’t mind a sudden, unexamined lead to a decision, but it doesn’t bode well to frame a story about questionable behavior as positive.
Of course, the problems don’t end there. The way Sarah Jo seeks validation and sexual liberation is always through men. Conceptually, it would make sense for any heterosexual woman looking for new and exciting experiences. But Dunham also has a big demand from her audience. She expects the audience to believe that the character is both stunted and extremely ignorant of all things sex-related.
But in Sharp Stick, Sarah Jo has a support system in her mother and sister, two women who are more than willing to have these conversations—so much so that they often come into the call at a moment’s notice. However, Sarah Jo doesn’t talk to them about it at all. It’s a convenient script element that only leads to confusing and unbelievable moments, and unfortunately, they happen often.
When Sharp Stick isn’t drowning in an endless sea of confusion, stellar performances keep this narratively thin element afloat. Froseth soars as the innocent Sarah Jo with charm and deliberately subtle precision. It’s touching and interesting at all the right times.
As expected, Paige is a scene stealer and she puts on a spectacular enough show to overcome the limitations of her thin story and character growth. Finally, Bernthal gives a great performance that can only draw the audience into the intrigue. His character is not complex, but Bernthal has the ability to reveal the role and captivate the audience just by how he interacts with his scene partners.
Dunham’s return to filmmaking is a controversial one that is sure to divide audiences. It’s exactly what one would expect from a writer-director story. Sharp Stick feels experimental with no real vision behind Sarah Jo’s journey of using sex to overcome discomfort with her own body. And yet somewhere in here was a great movie.
Unfortunately, key messages about sexual liberation without judgment get lost in translation behind a script that doesn’t fail the characters. And whatever Dunham hopes to convince the audience of has already been accomplished in better ways. Fortunately, a great cast assuages any doubts about their ability to take on an uneven script like this and turns it into a decent viewing experience, even if it falls short of its full potential. “Sharp Stick.”
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