Small-budget, character-driven festival films come and go, and most of them—even the good ones—tend to only be seen by niche audiences and then are quickly forgotten. A good thing you can say about Lena Dunham’s Sharp Stick, if you must say anything, is that no one who sees this monstrosity will forget it anytime soon.
Even Jennifer Jason Leigh, one of the most charismatic screen actors of our time, is unbearable in Sharp Stick. She plays a mom to two daughters played by Kristine Froseth and Taylour Paige, who are both in their late 20s but act like teens. One is white and the other black, so it’s not unreasonable to wonder how that family dynamic came about. Consequently, the three gather in their living room when Mom blurts out “Who wants to hear their origin story?” to which all respond, “Me!!!!!” That’s the level of subtlety we’re working with here.
Had there not been a minor brouhaha during the film’s debut at virtual Sundance earlier this year, Froseth’s Sarah Jo would safely be described as a “young neurodivergent woman.” There is no explicit diagnosis of such, but her performance is an avalanche of “Oh, no, I can’t believe she is making that face.” (The producers say she is not coded to be neurodivergent.) Her story arc is, essentially, a love affair between herself and a newly discovered taste for orgasms. This is sex-positive Simple Jack.
Things begin when Sarah Jo, who works as a babysitter for a special needs child, hurls herself at the hunky father Josh (Jon Bernthal). Josh is kind of a down-to-earth doofus in a hoodie, eager to dance around and make people happy, but clearly something of a mess. (His pregnant wife, played by Dunham herself, is the breadwinner.)
Josh spends about three minutes rejecting this unusual but conventionally attractive girl who is desperate to experience sex, but is somehow completely unfamiliar with its actual lexicon or logistics. (She aids her older sister in making racy TikTok videos to profanity-laced tunes, but has no clue what the term “go down on” could possibly mean.) Josh quickly succumbs to desire and the two start boning, a development that seems to go well, at least until they get caught and Josh tosses Sarah Jo out.
But Pandora’s box has been opened for Sarah Jo, and what happens next is a purportedly whimsical romp through her sexual awakening. She watches porno on her laptop (she’d never seen any before), makes wide-eyed faces and writes down notes in block letters on a pad. “He seems mad,” she writes. “Why is this pretty girl so sad?” and “Do not want to see any wide open anus holes” are also among her observations.
She puts herself on the internet, and creates middle school arts-and-crafts-style wall decorations of alphabetized sex activities, ready to check each one off. (Whoopsie! A “blow job” doesn’t mean you blow on it!) Men quickly take her up on the offer. She also writes a lengthy note to a male porn star (Scott Speedman) which she enlists another adult industry insider (an angel played by Luka Sabbat who won’t get freaky with her without some conversation first) to pass along to him. Somewhere during this journey, some kind of uplifting message emerges about being yourself.
Watching Sharp Stick is like encountering that pain box that Paul Atreides faces in Dune, only instead of a hand it’s your entire soul. Every moment is awkward, phony, excruciating, and just so unbelievably bad.
Here’s a good time to point out that Dunham has, many times, been a magnet for unjust criticism. Girls did somewhat derail by the end, but those early seasons were absolutely spectacular. As a performer, she can dazzle on the screen. Her moment in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood… is terrific albeit quick—and she contributes the only scene that feels genuine in Sharp Stick, when her character is shocked-not-shocked to discover her husband’s philandering. Even the previous high-water mark of Dunham cringe, her Sensual Pantsuit Anthem video for Hillary Rodham Clinton, features a few clever zings, plus at least one welcome moment of self-awareness. (“I wonder if I’m actually hurting her chances of winning?” Dunham muses at the end.)
With Sharp Stick, there sadly is not even a glimmer of mindfulness. It is, instead, a pure, unfiltered firehose of bad ideas, and surely one of the worst movies of 2022.