For those familiar with Lena Dunham’s body of work, the controversial actress has established herself as excelling at awkward, sexually-explicit material tinged with dark comedy and coming-of-age vibes. Sharp Stick follows suit, placing Kristine Frøseth front and center in an absolutely transformative, unique performance. Far from the New York City-centric snark of HBO’s Girls, Sharp Stick (filmed in L.A. in secret with an all-female crew) taps into the oddities of dating through relatable cringe-comedy, and an explosive sexual awakening.
Sarah Jo (Frøseth, Birds of Paradise, Looking for Alaska) lives with her social media-obsessed sister, Treina (Taylour Paige, Zola, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), and her unconventional, man-hating mother, Marilyn (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Single White Female, The Hateful Eight), far more sheltered than one would expect from a 26-year-old adult female. Sarah Jo’s work as a caregiver to special needs children gives her a sense of purpose and belonging, but something is missing. Marilyn is the type of mom who celebrates “antihistamine hour” daily, and smokes weed with her kids while reminiscing about her sordid past. Treina and Sarah Jo have an interesting, easy relationship, with the chemistry between Froseth and Paige being a true highlight. Despite the obvious attention she gets from her family, Sarah Jo’s curiosity finally gets the best of her. As Treina celebrates getting closer to a potential suitor, Sarah Jo longs to explore the loss of her virginity. She weirdly presents much younger than she actually is, utilizing ribbons and hair bows, as well as adolescent dress. Marilyn hammers in that if a man is willing to answer one simple question, he could be a keeper: “do you think I’m beautiful?”
Sarah Jo uses this mantra on the first and only older man that seems to be in her life, one that also just so happens to be her current employer! Josh (Jon Bernthal, The Punisher, The Walking Dead) is a middle-aged married man with a baby on the way, a deeply pregnant wife (played by Dunham), and young son Zach (Liam Michel Saux), yet he is drawn to the alluring positivity of Sarah Jo. Resistance was never in the cards, though Josh does initially suggest he is far too grizzled for her, and no Zac Efron. Is it that Sarah Jo seduces him, or does Josh want their tryst even more than she does? The question endures as their flirtation metastasizes into a dangerous potential truth that hangs over them. The sexually-inexperienced Sarah Jo doesn’t even know what it means when Josh asks to go down on her; she simply blows on his genitals when asked to give a “blowjob.” Josh has much more to lose than she does, but their secrets do not seem to phase him.
Throughout the course of Sharp Stick, Sarah Jo’s personality, intensified by the sheer glee of Kristine Frøseth’s performance, is utterly infectious. One cannot help cringe or giggle at her reaction in any given situation. Once her porn obsession is sparked, there is no dialing it down. An adoration is hatched for neck-tattooed blondie Vance Leroy (Scott Speedman, Animal Kingdom, The Strangers), whose porn star character ends up being one of my favorites in the film. As usual, Dunham’s writing excels in the specificity of its situations. Sarah Jo’s hysterectomy scars—inspired by Dunham’s own experience during the pandemic—are cause for her own insecurities and longing for love. Furthermore, they also contribute to her Leroy attraction, who in turn has a scar of his own. Imagery is always tastefully done, and refuses to take advantage of Sarah Jo’s vulnerability. I loved that random hookups are depicted onscreen as being completely faceless, recognized only for their parts as use in marking off a sex checklist. This shows us not only the way the character views the people she is mindlessly hooking up with, it is also unique cinematically. A lesser film would have reveled in the uncomfortable, graphic moments.
Stylistically, Sharp Stick will not be for everyone. I am a major fan of coming-of-age movies, so it was already a relatively easy sell for me. However, the sexually explicit dialogue and melodic journey of Sarah Jo discovering her sexuality and femininity could easily be mistaken for meandering or plotless. Personally, I was never bothered by the pacing or the tone. How can one ignore a movie whose message boils down to loving oneself? As far as I’m concerned, Dunham’s film has beautifully captured this vital message through comedy. Frøseth’s instantly-iconic turn as the lead must be seen to be believed. Throw in an ensemble built of fantastic character-actors, a recurring animated constellation gag representative of the female orgasm, and a poignant ending for a real popped-cherry on top!
Sharp Stick screened at 2022’s Fantasia Film Festival. Don’t miss the “mean thing” go down as it heads to theaters on Friday, July 29th.