By Yun-hua Chen.

Entertaining, and sexy for what it sets out to do, but if Hannah Horvath in Girls could self-assuredly declare herself ‘the voice of a generation,’ Sarah Jo in Sharp Stick wrestles to find a coherent voice of any kind.”

The director, actor, and showrunner Lena Dunham, famous for her HBO show Girls (2012-2017) about 20-year-olds, and Generation (2021) that focuses on high school students, continues with her probe into the psyche of young women in Sharp Stick, this time bringing in autobiographical elements of endometriosis and hysterectomy.

The main character Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth) is a 26-year-old woman who has undergone hysterectomy at the age of 15 and experienced menopause at 17. With the exploration of sex having stopped before even starting, Sarah Jo is like a child incarcerated in the body of a grown-up. When she encounters the hyperbolically hipsterish stay-at-home-dad Josh (Jon Bernthal), the father of the boy with Down syndrome whom she cares for, she sees him as a living embodiment of an ideal sexual partner. By exposing her scar of hysterectomy, she declares her virginity and sexual desire to Josh, who accepts it despite being happily married, at least on the surface, to the heavily pregnant Heather (Lena Dunham). It is through these sessions of sexual experimentation with Josh that Sarah Jo begins her full-fledged path of belated coming-of-age.

Without any men in the family, Sarah Jo grows up on the margins of Hollywood with her mother Marilyn (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a former model who does not shy away from libertine impulses, and the influencer older sister Treina (Taylour Paige), who was adopted from the mother’s friend at birth. In a somehow incomprehensible manner, Marilyn and Treina that are both very verbal about their own sexual adventures seem to take no interest in Sarah Jo’s sexual need. The matriarchal family, busying themselves with blabbing on about apartment renovation and followers of dance videos, is bonded by the mystified “origin stories”; how Marilyn befriends Treina’s mother, and how Mrilyn has a fling with Sarah Jo’s biological father, a not very bright but rather handsome personal trainer – that seems to be Dunham’s rather oversimplified explanation of Sarah Jo’s wide-eyed unintelligence and ingenuous worldview. One cannot help but think that the fairytale-like multiracial family, whose narrative function is not much more than decorative, is there merely to serve the purpose of reacting to those who criticized Dunham for having created an all-white world in Girls.

Movie Review: Lost in Lena Dunhamland with a “Sharp Stick” | Movie Nation

Sarah Jo’s character, a socially awkward and otherworldly naïve young woman, is reminiscent of Dunham’s previous character Hannah Horvath in Girls as well as the characters created by Greta Gerwig, but her medical condition gives Dunham’s exploration of young women’s sex life a new dimension. The sex scenes, shot entirely from Sarah Jo’s perspective, progressively develop from her complete incomprehension of her own body to gradual discovery of myriad carnal pleasures, and then to sexual awakening, self-consciousness, and self-acceptance. They are realistic, sometimes crude, and nuanced with the female gaze. Bernthal’s performance is subtle, convincingly combining charm, lechery, and wretchedness with a well-balanced dose of comedy. These sensual scenes are the driving force of the narrative. What is odd, however, is that in a film about sexual awakening of a young woman, the deus ex machina comes from a male porn star Vance Leroy (Scott Speedman) when Sarah Jo sinks into despair because of Josh’s abandonment; it is Vance Leroy’s performance that comforts her and his final short motivational video that saves her from self-pity and unties the association between love and sexual skills.

Kristine Froseth’s portrayal of Sarah Jo oscillates between a dehumanized doll evocative of Lolita, and a self-sexualized mature woman who tackles her lack of sexual experience by meticulously going through a checklist of sexual acts; she wears old-fashioned long skirts and blouses, whereas her hair is decorated with barrettes. These innate contradictions, instead of being fused into character complexity, are a rather curious amalgam of stereotypes to the extent of schizophrenia, all the while that Sarah Jo’s lack of sexual knowledge, epitomized in the literal understanding of a “blowjob”, is intentionally exaggerated for gratuitous comical effects.

Sharp Stick is entertaining, and sexy for what it sets out to do, but if Hannah Horvath in Girls could self-assuredly declare herself “the voice of a generation”, Sarah Jo in Sharp Stick wrestles to find a coherent voice of any kind.

Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar. Her work has been published in Film International, Journal of Chinese Cinema, and Directory of World Cinema. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs was published by Neofelis Verlag, and she has contributed to the edited volume Greek Film Noir (Edinburgh University Press, 2022).

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