Lena Dunham: are there four syllables more likely to generate a tiresome round of online discourse than the name of this lightning rod of a writer/director/actress? Ever since her self-starring 2010 debut Tiny Furniture won best narrative feature at South by Southwest when its creator was only 24—and most especially during the six years she spent in the public eye as the co-writer, co-showrunner and lead character of the groundbreaking HBO sitcom Girls—Dunham’s every public utterance seemed to start a protracted fight, about the representation of female sexuality onscreen, body image, consent, diversity in casting—the list is endless.
At times during her stretch in the limelight, Dunham seemed to be deliberately inviting negative attention. Not unlike Hannah Horvath, her compulsively exhibitionistic character on Girls, the Dunham of that era had a gift for misjudged oversharing, both in the press and on social media. The same lack of filter that made her a taboo-breaking creative force meant that she often seemed uncertain how to handle her early and sudden fame. She was excoriated for everything from creating a show with a nearly all-white cast—a legitimate critique of Girls, even if it did apply equally to most sitcoms in television history—to neglecting her rescue dog, Lamby.
In the five years since Girls ended, Dunham has been less in the public eye as she went through some tough personal and professional times. There was a breakup with her longtime partner, the musician Jack Antonoff; a hysterectomy after years of painful endometriosis; and a series of coolly received projects, including the short-lived HBO series Camping. Since marrying the British-Peruvian musician Luis Felber last year, she has appears to have found stability and happiness in her personal life, and this year, at 36, she returns to feature filmmaking with two new movies: Sharp Stick, which releases this week in theaters, and a long-in-the-works adaptation of the YA novel Catherine, Called Birdy, premiering this fall at the Toronto Film Festival.
Sharp Stick debuted at Sundance in January to a mixed-to-negative critical reception. Still, as an unabashed Girls fan who has been waiting for Dunham to find the right place to again deploy her talent for observing the nuances of young women’s sexuality and relationships, I found this movie shocking—not because of its explicit sex scenes, but because of the slapdash artlessness of its construction. If Tiny Furniture showed Dunham, in the words of one critic at the time, as “a storyteller of gigantic charm and subtlety,” this 12-years-later second feature feels more like a debut film, and not one that would have made me especially curious to see what its creator would do next.
The Norwegian actress Kristine Froseth plays Sarah Jo, a 26-year-old who works as a trained home aide—essentially a value-added babysitter—for a little boy with Down syndrome.* Sarah Jo lives with her mother Marilyn (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and adopted sister Treina (Zola’s Taylour Paige) in a small Los Angeles apartment. Their household is a chaotic mini-matriarchy, with Marilyn, a five-times-married former party girl, dispensing advice to Treina about how best to package herself as a sexy TikTok influencer. Meanwhile the naïve Sarah Jo, who looks and dresses more like a prim preteen than a woman in her mid-twenties, listens in wide-eyed wonder. This is a family so sexually frank that Treina and her mom sit at the kitchen table painting their nails as they rap along with Khia’s X-rated hit “My Neck, My Back.” Yet in a later scene, once Sarah Jo’s initiation into the world of sex is under way, she is still so untutored in basic vocabulary that she believes the word “blowjob” implies blowing on a man’s penis.
Dunham and her team have denied reports that Sarah Jo was originally written as a neurodivergent character, though Froseth did reach out to an autism sexuality advocate in her early stages of research. The choice not to provide any back story for why Sarah Jo seems so delayed in her sexual development spares the character from being actively offensive, but it also leaves the viewer puzzled as to how this apparently intelligent and competent young woman could have grown up in an outspokenly sex-positive setting with so little grasp of 21st-century reality that she has no idea you can find pornography on the internet. Though Froseth, Leigh, and Paige give it their all, bringing tenderness, humor and affection to their scenes together, I never believed in the reality of this family unit. In particular, the contrast between the two sisters, the virginal, uptight Sarah Jo and the twerking, boy-crazy Treina, felt like a pure story contrivance—and one that, given the fact Sarah Jo is white and Treina Black, carries with it racial implications that the script barrels obliviously past.
Sarah Jo is an enthusiastic and intuitive caregiver to her young charge, Zach (Liam Michel Saux), and his parents regard her as a godsend. Zach’s father Josh (Jon Bernthal) is a loving father but an irresponsible man-boy with no visible means of employment; his wife Heather, played by Dunham, is the family breadwinner, a hard-driving real estate broker who is out of the house all day. Heather is also only weeks away from giving birth to a second child—and, at least according to Josh, has not had sex with her husband in two years. The combination of sexually uninitiated babysitter and horny stay-at-home dad proves incendiary; at Sarah Jo’s initiation, the two begin a dangerous affair right under the noses of Josh’s wife and son.
The first half of the movie tracks the rise and fall of this doomed liaison. The early sex scenes are filmed with a comic awkwardness that recalls Girls, with Sarah Jo apologizing for her abdominal scars—like her creator, we learn, she has had her uterus removed after medical complications—and Josh humiliated by his premature ejaculation. But a later montage of the couple going at it while high on mushrooms glistens with the telegenic eroticism of an Adrian Lyne movie. Tonal inconsistencies and all, Dunham knows how to film a sex scene, but the incoherence of the story makes it hard to root for Sarah Jo’s sexual awakening, especially after Josh predictably dumps her and she dives down a rabbit hole of internet porn and hookup apps. A disturbing montage in the second half of the movie has her inviting a series of strange men to her room (somehow, inexplicably, unobserved by her mother and sister) as she works her way down an A-to-Z checklist of porn-sourced acts and positions: A for anal, B for bukkake, C for creampie, etc. The wide-eyed enthusiasm with which Sarah Jo approaches this project is meant, I think, to be whimsically endearing; instead, I worried for her safety every time a stranger appeared at the door. Late in the movie she has an oblique encounter with a surprisingly sensitive porn star played by Scott Speedman. It’s one of the few moments in this raunch-packed but weirdly unsexy movie when I understood why Sarah Jo desired something or someone, and I wish the subplot had been given more development and screen time.
In its basic story structure—a long-repressed woman goes on an at-first hesitant, then liberating voyage of self-discovery—Sharp Stick is not unlike another recent release, Good Luck to You, Leo Grande. But where that (far superior) movie places its sixtysomething heroine in a social context that makes her lack of experience plausible, Dunham simply asks us to accept a set of self-contradictory truths about her much younger protagonist. She is as innocent as a newborn fawn yet as sexually insatiable as a tigress, capable of running what amounts to a free online sex service out of her bedroom while being too clueless to use Google. When, in the final scenes, this disturbingly childlike woman finds what seems to be orgasmic bliss with a new, way-too-hastily-sketched suitor, I found myself craving release, not from sexual tension but simply from the theater. Dunham’s provocations here feel as unsubtle as the pokey implement of the title. This compulsively frank writer-director, who sometimes appears to be exploring her own transgressive fantasies, remains a singular figure on the cultural landscape. But Sharp Stick is less a movie than a symptom, a tangle of would-be feminist ideas that, let us hope, needed to be gotten out of its creator’s system so she could get back to making something good.
Correction, Aug. 2, 2022: This article originally misidentified Kristine Froseth as Swedish. She is Norwegian.