Sharp Stick

***

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Sharp Stick
"Dunham is constantly looking for laughs and does deliver quite a few, but you never fully believe these people are living in the real world." | Photo: Courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival

There’s a sweet centre to the latest film from Lena Dunham, which though it strains at the bounds of believability in terms of its set-up, nevertheless has a refreshingly up front approach and a lack of cynicism when it comes to its central character’s self-schooled sexual awakening.

How Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth) has remained so bright eyed and ignorant about the ins and outs of sex is the film’s biggest mystery. Surely she should have picked up something from her mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh), whose idea of girl talk is to chat about her exes’ manhood, and social media influencer sister, Treina (Taylour Paige), who has all the right moves and all the wrong boyfriends? Nevertheless, while her mum is majoring in Boho chic and Treina wears the latest fashions, Sarah Jo, for reasons that are never adequately explained, appears to have inherited the wardrobe of Laura Ingalls Wilder. While part of the explanation may lie in her self-consciousness over body scars, from a hysterectomy as a child that put her into early menopause – something Dunham notes draws on her own experience of endometriosis – she feels as though she has been ‘extra’ infantilised for no good reason.

While this serves to illustrate her vulnerability, it also undercuts the believability as the film progresses. Sarah Jo is the epitome of a sweet mid-teenager, on a carers course and helping the heavily pregnant Heather (Dunham) and her husband Josh (Jon Bernthal) with their young Down syndrome sone Zack. And yet, it turns out, Sarah Jo is not a teenager at all but a 26-year-old. Her vulnerability – or possibly simply her virginity – proves an aphrodisiac for man-child Josh, whose lack of self-restraint has an almost casual toxicity, and Dunham does a good job of sliding him from chummy dad to pathetic loser. His encounters with Sarah Jo, however, introduce her to porn and soon she is setting off on her own sexual odyssey, which comes with its own A to Z list and a long letter to her favourite porn star Vance Leroy (Scott Speedman).

Dunham is constantly looking for laughs and does deliver quite a few, but you never fully believe these people are living in the real world. The trajectory charted by the central character is very similar to that fellow Sundance alumni Good Luck To You, Leo Grande – right down to a to-do list! – but Dunham’s writing feels more sketchy, the characters less well-honed, despite good performances all round. One thing that is never in doubt, however, is that she cares a lot about Sarah Jo and her right to make whatever decisions and mistakes she wants to – and in a world that sets people up to be judged almost constantly on and offline, there’s a lot to be said for that.

Reviewed on: 03 Aug 2022
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A naive 26-year-old finds herself on a sexual odyssey.


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