At the center of Lena Dunham’s new film—her first since her breakout semi-autobiographical oddball romp Tiny Furniture—is a strange yet assertive 26-year-old virgin, Sarah Jo (played with heart by actress/model Kristine Froseth), whose family operates as a mostly benign cult. Sharp Stick, which premiered on January 22 at Sundance, follows Sarah Jo’s quest to propel herself out of arrested development and into a mostly mythical world of sexual assuredness.
Why is Sarah Jo so “different,” as she herself puts it? For one, she has a childlike openness and naiveté which makes her a particularly skilled caregiver to children with special needs (she’s training as a social worker), but is probably off-putting to many neurotypical people her own age. She also was, as a recent episode of The Righteous Gemstones puts it, a “toilet baby,” unexpected by her mother and premature by several months.
Yet, in a fairly spot-on representation of LA’s Gen Z contingent, Sarah Jo wears frilly, pastel-colored clothes that make her look like an upbeat mormon teen with a secret. It’s this juxtaposition of pretty and weird, true original and bewildering dork, that throws her vulnerability into sharp relief. You worry for her eccentric and unlikely combination of traits, especially when her unconventional landlord mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh, doing her best new-age-adjacent inappropriate California mom) and narcissistic social-media-influencer-wannabe sister (Taylour Paige, expanding on the entrancing comedic timing she showed off in Zola) don’t seem to worry at all. Sarah Jo, following cryptic offhand advice and anecdotes from mom and sister, will mostly have to figure it out on her own.
Sharp Stick is a supremely funny film. Dunham—who not only wrote and directed but also plays Heather, the stressed-out pregnant mother of Sarah Jo’s young client Zach (Liam Michel Saux)—will make you laugh. It’s easy to assume that the story is meant to only approximate the real—exploring the sexual coming-of-age of a woman who’s a little too old to be coming of age—but it is both earnest and facetious, rooted in the bizzaro LA pastime of taking oneself seriously while being absolutely ridiculous.
Sarah Jo has a crush on Zach’s dad and Heather’s husband Josh (2022’s breakout hunk Jon Bernthal), very much a man in physique and stature yet unfailingly boyish in attitude. The fierceness and certitude with which she pursues this crush and carries out the resulting affair is also a function of her alternately high and low self-regard. She’s watched Josh very closely, and believes he’s the perfect man to take the virginity of a woman like her. She lists him the reasons why, and shows him scars she’s had since childhood from a series of difficult operations. During this speech, she gives some clues as to why she has carried on a mostly friendless existence even pre-pandemic (yes, the pandemic makes up a relatively small part of the film’s circumstances). She doesn’t worry about her position as Zach’s aid, that Josh’s wife is very pregnant, and that her job could be on the line—her pleasure, finally, comes first.
A lot of people, many of whom are chronically online, will likely be put off by this film for various reasons: Sarah Jo’s not-totally-explained childlike behaviors combined with her affair with an older man; the ambiguity of Sarah Jo’s place on the spectrums of disability and neurodivergence (it’s really up to audience members to decide where she falls); Paige playing Jason Leigh’s Black adoptee daughter whose own mother ran off with “some guy” when the former was a baby; porn operating as a kind of liberating force rather than a destructive one (Scott Speedman has a hilarious cameo as an empathetic pornstar called Vance Leroy); Dunham’s own transgressions and failures as a public figure, perceived and real; I could go on. But I don’t think Dunham made this film to troll. Sharp Stick is deeply personal; a series of constellation-like animations that arise in Sarah Jo’s mind as she has sex serve as a reminder of those resonances. Like any artist worth her salt, Dunham yields to the farthest corners of her imagination and experience—backlash be damned.
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