Chicago - Editor's note: This review originally ran as part of our coverage of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 28, 2022. It has been republished in light of the film's debut in theaters.
Lena Dunham’s first feature since 2010’s "Tiny Furniture" (she made HBO’s "Girls" in the interim), "Sharp Stick" certainly feels like the product of a woman reflecting on more than a decade in the spotlight, with all the praise, criticism and controversy that entails.
About "Sharp Stick": An unconventional coming-of-age story
It’s a grand understatement to say the past few years in Dunham’s life have been eventful; to summarize it all would take up about as much time as "Sharp Stick" does, so let’s just say that it’s complicated. Regardless, the real-life event that most likely inspired her script is her hysterectomy. (Dunham specifically cited "medical trauma" as an influence in a Sundance Q&A session.)
Here, that experience belongs to 26-year-old protagonist Sarah Jo, played with idiosyncratic enthusiasm by Kristine Froseth. The procedure and its aftermath cause Sarah Jo to emotionally regress to a naive, almost childlike state, stunting her emotional growth and leaving her fearful of sex. Enter an aw-shucks himbo (Jon Bernthal) who awakens something inside her, launching Sarah Jo into something of a sexual rumspringa — including an obsession with her new favorite porn star (played by Scott Speedman).
"Sharp Stick": A sexual rumspringa
Kristine Froseth and Jon Bernthal appear in "Sharp Stick" by Lena Dunham, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
Dunham essentially performs a full-on pivot to provocateur with this film — it is a lot. Yet the intensity is leavened by the kind of whimsical quirks typically found in the films of artists like Miranda July. (Sarah Jo’s alphabetical sexual checklist — A for anal, the list goes on — is written out as a big arts-and-crafts mural in her room.)
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The result is messy, less a cohesive motion picture than the first-draft sketching of an artist scrambling to put herself back together after years of medical and professional strife. It feels like an elevation of Dunham’s visual craft, to be sure, toying with the limits of her typical formalism with animated sequences and playful editing. And if it doesn't altogether work, it still shows Dunham growing as an artist, exorcising her personal demons around sex and personhood.
"Sharp Stick" may be self-consciously provocative, but that provocation at least provides plenty to unpack.
You can watch the green-band trailer here; please note that the content is age-restricted and viewers must verify age with YouTube before viewing.
Rated R. 86 minutes. Dir: Lena Dunham. Featuring: Kristine Froseth, Jon Bernthal, Scott Speedman, Lena Dunham, Taylour Paige, Jennifer Jason Leigh. "Sharp Stick" premieres in select theaters July 29 and opens nationwide Aug. 5.
About the writer: Clint Worthington is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Spool, and a Senior Writer at Consequence. You can find his other work at Vulture, Nerdist, RogerEbert.com, and elsewhere.
Make it a double feature with "Professor Marston and the Wonder Women," streaming free on Tubi
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017): It turns out there’s more to Wonder Woman’s (real world) origin story than we knew. This thoughtful, sexy biographical drama looks at the psychologist and comic book writer who first created the Wonder Woman character, and the two women who helped him do it. Rated R. 108 minutes. Dir: Angela Robinson. Featuring: Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, Bella Heathcote, Connie Britton, Oliver Platt.
How to watch "Sharp Stick"
"Sharp Stick" premiered in July and expanded to theaters nationwide Aug. 5. It will be available on digital platforms starting Aug. 16.
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