Movie Review: 'Sharp Stick' is Pointlessly Provocative
Lena Dunham muddles through many ideas about sexual empowerment on her way to nowhere in Sharp Stick.
Sharp Stick is an utterly bizarre and deeply off-putting new movie from writer-director Lena Dunham. Now, before you start on the assumption that I am one of those people who hate anything related to Lena Dunham, I assure you that is not the case. I, like most others, found Dunham through her HBO series Girls, and I have been a fan of her sharp, and offbeat work since that series began and ended.
I’ve been eagerly awaiting Dunham’s next project as Girls showed a lot of potential for the growth of her talent as a writer. I’ve also not paid much attention to her social media where I am told she’s made many unfortunate statements that I am not eager to investigate. Bottom line, I didn’t go into Sharp Stick with a negative opinion of Dunham but I did come away with a very negative opinion of this film.
Sharp Stick stars Kristine Forseth as Sarah Jo, a 12 year old in the body of a 26 year old. I don't think that's supposed to be the impression she gives but that’s the impression that I got from Forseth’s performance and Dunham’s direction. Sarah Jo lives with her adoptive mother Marlyn (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and her adopted sister Treina (Taylour Paige), each of whom is obsessed with being an influencer. Sarah Jo helps Treina with her social media videos while Mom drinks and encourages Treina to become a star in order to support the family.
The trio have frank conversations about sexuality, or rather mom and Treina do while Sarah Jo listens in awkwardly. Each character invites scrutiny but mostly Sarah Jo. How is this character supposed to be 26 years old, living with two sexually provocative women, and still be naïve enough that she has to be told that there is pornography on the internet and that a blowjob doesn’t require actually blowing air onto a man’s penis?
Through her curiosity with her sister’s growing sexual behavior, Sarah Jo decides she must lose her virginity. This leads to her basically forcing her employer’s husband, a layabout wannabe influencer played by Jon Bernthal, to have sex with her. This is all while she’s supposed to be babysitting the man’s child who has down’s syndrome. Director Lena Dunham enters the story here as well as the man’s put upon, pregnant wife, a saint who tolerates his lack of a job or ambition while providing a rich home and someone to watch their child even though he’s also home all day.
Dunham casting herself as a saintly martyr appears to be a particular taunt toward her critics though if you don’t care about her various social media dramas, it’s not very interesting or effective as a taunt. I can imagine that people who already dislike Lena Dunham will be aggravated by this plot cul de sac of a character but the rest of us are simply left wondering what this has to do with anything else in this movie.
The rest of the movie is focused on Sarah Jo’s sexual exploration. Sarah Jo puts up an ABC list of sexual escapades on the wall of her bedroom that she then invites a series of strangers to come over and perform. She checks each one off of the list and then writes to her favorite porn star about the experience. We never read the letters though he will later. This goes on for several scenes and never offers anything remotely insightful aside from the idea that even with all of the sex, Sarah Jo remains easily embarrassed by sex and anyone in her immediate circle knowing what she’s doing.
Searching for a point in Sharp Stick is a fruitless endeavor. The film attempts to wield sexual exploration as a weapon and fails miserably. Sarah Jo is a cypher, an empty vessel who invites far more disturbing questions than the ones vaguely addressed in Sharp Stick. Her arc is naïve child in the body of a 26 year old transitioning to a slightly jaded sexually experienced and still quite childlike 26 year old.
For the life of me, I am searching for a point, some kind of purpose for Sharp Stick and I cannot find one. I’ve seen the film twice in this search and I have come away simply more aggravated by how mindless it appears to be. Sarah goes through a checklist of sexual experiences with a stream of nameless creeps and nothing remotely funny, sexy, dramatic, or exciting happens. Is the point that sex isn’t fun for women? No, because Sarah Jo has great fun having sex with Jon Bernthal’s Josh. So what then?
The most interesting and oddly thoughtful character in the movie is one who’s only briefly on screen, Scott Speedman plays a pornstar that Sarah Jo becomes obsessed with. She’d like to talk to him and eventually, she does get a message to him and a message back. Speedman is oddly terrific in this bonehead sexual philosopher role. I would have liked more from him but he’s just yet another poorly thought out aspect of this generally poorly thought out film.
I was genuinely excited about Sharp Stick when I first read about it. I loved the idea of Zola’s Taylour Paige and the iconic Jennifer Jason Leigh speaking in Lena Dunham’s new age feminist voice and wit. Instead, Leigh is just above a cameo in a bored performance and Taylour Paige is not used to the best of her capabilities. Given the extraordinary layers she brought to Zola, Paige was probably a more interesting choice to play Sarah Jo but instead we are left with Forseth.
I’m not saying Forseth is a bad actress. Rather, I think she was simply directed poorly. I feel that Lena Dunham didn’t go into Sharp Stick with a strong idea and hoped that she might find something deep in the filmmaking process. This leaves poor Kristene Forseth in an ill-defined character who invites scrutiny in ways that distract from whatever the point Dunham eventually thought she was making in Sharp Stick.
One quick note about the ending, if you plan on seeing Sharp Stick despite this review, leave now. I want to address the ending of the film and see if I can make a semblance of sense of it.
The ending finds Sarah Jo having sex with a guy who might be a potential boyfriend after having almost been one of her many sexual checkmarks on her journey through her sexual bingo card. Finally having reached a place where she thinks she understands sex, Sarah Jo appears to be reaching a climax when mysterious hands emerge from above her head and begin to caress her face. Fade to black and credits.
What was that supposed to mean? What did these two mystery hands have to do with anything thematically or otherwise? Is there supposed to be another person in the room? Is she imagining these hands? Are the hands representing God and a sense that sex has brought her to a new plain of existence? Who the hell knows, I can’t imagine that even Lena Dunham knows what she was trying to say here.
About the author
Very well written. Keep up the good work!
Expert insights and opinions
Arguments were carefully researched and presented