Sharp Stick

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Like a lot of Lena Dunham’s work, Sharp Stick is a quirky dramedy set among the delusional and self-obsessed. With its strong autobiographical element it sits neatly alongside her early web series Delusional Downtown Divas (which kind of says it all), her breakthrough movie Tiny Furniture, and her TV show Girls.

Dunham appears in it, and also produces, writes and directs, but it all hangs on one-time model and star of Netflix’s The Society Kristine Froseth, as a spectacularly naive woman who lives at home with her jaded mother and influencer sister and then gets into sex all of a sudden, aged 26, after seducing the father of the kid she babysits. Dunham plays his hugely pregnant wife.

At no point does Sharp Stick make contact with any plausible reality but Dunham’s ability to write individually brilliant scenes is obvious – the scene where Froseth’s Sarah Jo seduces Josh (Jon Bernthal) with the most gruesomely frank rundown of her sexual health vis a vis recent medical interventions (I won’t ruin it) is buttock-clenching and awful and funny all at the same time.

From here, the sexual scales having fallen from her eyes, Sarah Jo embarks on a wild binge of sex, educating herself chiefly through a website called Clitty Clitty Bang Bang, where she starts working her way through its A-Z of sex – A is for Anal, B is for Bukkake etc – to make up for lost ground in record time. Her remote spiritual guide through all this is an online porn star called Vance Leroy, who is glimpsed occasionally both on and off the job and is played with athletic gusto and a perpetually strained expression by Scott Speedman.

Josh hugs a seated Heather, with Sarah Jon in the background
Heather, Josh… and Sarah Jo

There is great stuff in this film. Great performers too – like Ebon Moss-Bachrach (recently of The Bear) underused as Josh’s playa best friend and supplier of the pad where Josh is able to take Sarah Jo off for a rapid-fire introduction to the world of all things sex, plus drugs, plus more sex.

Dunham also does great writing work on the inevitable moment when Sarah Jo and Josh’s affair is discovered by his wife, Heather (Dunham), another moment of spectacular grimness and another case of Dunham coming up with a genuinely novel way of handling a familiar situation. You almost undoubtedly have not seen it done this way before.

The intimacy co-ordinator’s hand is evident in this one. Bernthal is frequently entirely naked, rear view only, while Froseth remains decorously draped throughout, though she makes up for the fragrance with eye-rolling orgasms on an epic scale. Those wanting something explicit, moaning aside, will need to go elsewhere.

Jennifer Jason Leigh adds to her list of flaky weirdos as Sarah Jo’s entirely self-obsessed mother – she was in two Duran Duran videos back in the day, don’t you know – while Taylour Paige (title character in the 2020 movie Zola, well worth seeing) plays Sarah Jo’s sister, possibly because Dunham got such a lot of flak for the all-white cast of young New York misses in Girls.

Like Moss-Bachrach, Paige and Leigh feel like they’re there for no particularly good reason. Their talent is largely wasted. But they’re emblematic of the film as a whole, which feels like a few great scenes flapping about looking for connective tissue.

The suspicion lurks that Dunham is trying to write an old-fashioned boy-meets-girl romance, but the side-of-the-mouth satire about porn gumming up everything it touches gets in the way. Which would help to explain the presence of Luka Sabbat as Arvin, a refugee of the porn industry who looks like he’s going to be Sarah Jo’s knight in shining armour but doesn’t get quite enough of a look-in to really count.

Sharp Stick – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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