Sundance Review: Lena Dunham Stumbles Back To Features With ‘Sharp Stick’
It’s been over a decade since controversial filmmaker Lena Dunham’s sophomore feature Tiny Furniture premiered at SXSW and took home the award for best narrative feature. Since then she’s done a fair amount of acting as well as created HBO’s acclaimed series Girls which she also starred in, but has since had some media run-ins (many surrounding events mentioned in her book Not That Kind of Girl) that turned many fans and critics personally against her. She’s since apologized for some of that and explained some more, but has had a bit of a lull in helming projects outside of a producer capacity despite popping up in a few small roles in other filmmakers’ productions. Many fans were eager to see her return to film and that’s exactly what she’s provided with her latest feature Sharp Stick, which recently premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
Sharp Stick tells the story of 26-year-old Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth, Apostle), a naïve woman living on the outskirts of Hollywood with her disillusioned mother Marilyn (Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight) and influencer sister Treina (Taylour Paige, Zola) while working as a babysitter for special needs children. The viewer is quickly introduced to the family that Sarah Jo is currently assigned to via some heartwarming moments shared with their son Zach (Liam Michel Saux, ENOUGH) in addition to a glimpse at his parents’ struggling marriage through both subtle dialogue queues and how differently each of them interacts with their son. His father Josh (Jon Bernthal, The Wolf of Wall Street) is clearly around more often, with the workload falling on the always busy and very pregnant mother Heather portrayed by Dunham herself; this has led to not only a lot of Josh’s time being spent with Zach, allowing them to form a close relationship, but also to much of that time being spent with their employee. It’s not long before Sarah Jo’s burgeoning sexuality is empowered by Marilyn’s highly romanticized stories of her past sexual escapades with a multitude of men (which only scratches the surface of the questionable example Marilyn sets for her daughters in the few times she appears), giving Sarah Jo the confidence to approach Josh one morning while Zach is still sleeping about her virginity and lack of experience. This leads to a spur-of-the-moment sexual encounter between the two, setting off the chain reaction of events comprising rest of the film’s oddly paced and unbalanced eighty-six minute runtime.
The awkwardness that follows would be much more bearable if the viewer was presented with a character to attach themselves to but due to the myriad of poor decisions they continuously make, they’re quite unlikable across the board. When these shortcomings are accompanied by the strange and far-fetched tonal shift that happens around the halfway mark, it leads to a very uneven watch across the board. It’s almost as if Dunham wants these characters to come across as sympathetic but with the majority of their issues stemming from their own misguided actions, some of which are dangerously irresponsible, it makes finding this sympathy a difficult task for the viewer. It’s not as if there’s nothing worthwhile here as all of the actors put in great performances (complete with appearances by Scott Speedman and Janicza Bravo), there’s a fair share of funny moments, and as with all of Lena’s work there’s plenty of likable needle drops scattered throughout; unfortunately that’s just not enough to make Sharp Stick the comeback feature that Dunham needed or fans were hoping for.