Sundance 2022 Review: SHARP STICK, Raunchy Yet Touching Gen-Z Female Empowerment
Kristine Froseth, Jon Bernthal and Luka Sabbat star in Lena Dunham's refreshingly sunny pandemic romantic dramedy.
Arriving 12 years after filmmaker Lena Dunham first made a splash with Tiny Furniture, her sophomore feature film, Sharp Stick, a raunchy coming-of-age story blended with a rom-dramedy, is a COVID film, its story unfolding and shot against an ongoing pandemic.
The zeitgeist of the pandemic era is not solely captured through the unmistakable props but also production constraints, resulting into mostly interior shots and a smaller number of characters. Sharp Stick will probably fail to satisfy expectations, especially in the wake of Girls, her generation-defining series. However, it would be unfair to dismiss the film based just on expectations and assumptions.
Sharp Stick opens with yet another generation-defining moment familiar to the Gen-Z and millennial socio-demographic group, namely, rehearsal for a TikTok clip. Treina (Taylour Paige) prepares her moves for her undisclosed followers, as her sister Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth) holds the phone, while their mother Marilyn (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is voicing opinions on influencers and their work. The trio soon sits behind a table discusing life and love while the girls' five-time divorced mother dishes out no-holds-barred pearls of wisdom.
Leigh's no-nonsense, down-to-earth, wine-sipping character engages with her daughters from the position of sisterhood instead of hierarchy. She has an instant, immediate connection to her kids in a strangely transparent relationship filled with dirty talk. Despite the low-brow charm of Leigh's foul-mouthed, cocky and independent matriarch, the protagonist, mousy Sarah Jo, is almost invisible. She slips harmless notices to their tenants about missing payments; Marilyn is an apartment manager on the fringes of Tinseltown, but she blooms when she is taking care of kids.
Kristine Froseth portrays the character with unarming naiveté and playfulness, that has good chemistry with children. However, her spirited nature is contrasted by childhood trauma resulting from an emergency hysterectomy. The memento of the invasive procedure remains on her scarred belly, which most likely triggered body insecurity so powerful that it led to her being sexually illiteral. At the age of 26, Sarah Jo remains a virgin, a status she decides to challenge headfirst.
Her Prince Charming becomes her current employer, Josh (Jon Bernthal), or better to say a stay-at-home husband to her employer Heather (Lena Dunham). Bernthal, similarly to Leigh, channels the cool vibe energy into his character of a father who acts like a bro to his child. Sarah Jo goes from zero-to-hero in sexual escapades with highly experienced Josh in an awakening of a religious-like experience. Froseth's character is in no way a scheming homewrecker, and Josh is not the material to wreck homes for.
Frolicking comes to a swift end when Josh starts falling for Sarah Jo and his heavily pregnant wife figures out the sex pact under her roof out as she goes into labor. Things are said and characters revealed on the floor of a fancy mansion that Josh did not procure and his cool bro image gets tainted by unfaithful player recidivism. The confrontation becomes a turning point for Sarah Jo, who has by this time been initiated in wild sex, magic mushrooms, and online porn, the whole package for a transformative encounter.
Nevertheless, Sarah Jo decides to continue in the carnal odyssey in an experiment that is bound to ramp up the transformation. She makes an A to Z list of a a rich variety of sex acts from timid to the most extreme. She acts upon it, luring a man from a Tinder-like app to her apartment and imitating what she saw in porn, where she finds her next crush, adult performer Vance Leroy (Scott Speedman), who comes off as a parody of a feminist porn star.
Dunham preserves the Californian sun-filled chill atmosphere as Sharp Stick swings from coming-of-age initiation into a bubble-gum Gen Z-rendition of Breaking the Waves. Contrary to von Trier´s oeuvre, Dunham keeps masochism and exploitation at bay, not exposing Sarah Jo to overtly disgusting "suitors".
Sharp Stick eschews any potentially hardcore depiction, as for example what Ninja Thyberg did in Pleasure, where she made a clear statement of what navigating the porn business entails. For the final act, Dunham returns to domestic soil as Sharp Stick takes a sharp albeit sweet turn into Kevin Smith and Judd Apatow's raunchy rom-com territory, without losing its edge of a female-empowering tale.
Lena Dunham's sophomore feature-length offering is thus a vivacious dramedy about identity, self-exploration, and personal development in a U.S. indie coating. (Eva Husson approached a similar subject with equal spirit in Bang Gang.) The film's zeitgeist does not lie solely in the circumstances of its production, but also in the subject matter and its free-spirited and uplifting execution.
Sharp Stick's arrival after two years of pandemic fatigue is perfectly timed. The film's latent optimism and happy-go-lucky nature do not bend to the institutionalized conventions of gender and genre and do not compromise Dunham's position as a generation-defying filmmaker.
- Lena Dunham
- Lena Dunham
- Kristine Froseth
- Jon Bernthal
- Luka Sabbat