Since her breakout film, 2010’s “Tiny Furniture,” sexual anxiety has been writer-director Lena Dunham’s governing subject, and she has an uncanny ability to channel the fear of embarrassment and exclusion that reside in lust.
With boldness, of course, comes peril. I tapped out of Dunham’s HBO show “Girls,” the launching port of a thousand think pieces, at around season four. Dunham’s narcissism and anti-vanity, which is really vanity under another name, wore me down on a week-after-week basis. Movies are a better, more concentrated form for a director concerned with such hothouse emotions. “Sharp Stick,” her first film in 12 years, finds Dunham moving beyond her most annoying qualities as an artist, namely her addiction to shock tactics.
Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth) lives with her mother, Marilyn (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and adopted sister, Treina (Taylour Paige), in an apartment somewhere on the outskirts of Hollywood. They emit respective, equally familiar hipster vibes. Marilyn is a Hollywood survivor, now the landlord of the complex where they live, with legendary stories of debauchery that she shares with her children—half-stoned on wine and weed—with smug yet vulnerable pleasure. Meanwhile, Treina is a player trying to cultivate a social media following. On the sidelines is Sarah Jo, a 26-year-old woman with the demeanor of a prepubescent bible studies prodigy. Virginity oozes out of Sarah Jo’s pores, yet she has a surprising reservoir of strength and self-possession.
Sarah Jo works as a caregiver for a child with special needs, Zach (Liam Michel Saux), who lives in the valley with his parents, Josh (Jon Bernthal) and Heather (Dunham), who’s pregnant again. And Sarah Jo fantasizes about Josh, who is so friendly, so chill, though with a self-conscious, over-eager, cool-dad air that fails to mask middle-aged desperation. One day, Sarah Jo propositions Josh in the laundry room and they go at it—in the awkward, this-isn’t-how-I-usually-am fashion of one who’s having sex for the first time and another who hasn’t been laid in a while.
The bored, fit, middle-aged stud and the inexperienced young woman hungry to be tutored—the scenario is porn 101. Dunham sets this situation up consciously so that she may detonate it with surgical precision. She emphasizes the emotions that porn, and media in general, leave out. This first sex scene is less notable for the get down than for the bartering that precedes it. Sarah Jo tells Josh that she had a complete hysterectomy at 16. Her reproductive insides were twisted up and had to be fixed, and Sarah Jo shows Josh the long scar between her belly button and groin from the operation. Josh touches the scar with awe, treating Sarah Jo with a courtliness that she probably didn’t think was imaginable. For a while, this courtliness imbues Josh with an unexpected majesty that’s proven to be an illusion.
Josh goes down on Sarah Jo and she doesn’t like it much, a detail that’s distinctive for cinema, which rarely acknowledges that certain pleasures, especially those that hinge on such exposure, have to be learned. In fact, cinema generally isn’t interested in the emotions of sex at all, investing instead in a visual shorthand—usually montages of softly lit kisses and caresses that are to be gotten over with so as to resume the actual plot. The act of learning sex can be terrifying—especially in a culture that insists that we should be bedroom Vikings from day one—and Dunham honors the weight of that terror. She takes a porn situation and instills it with the hum of authentic human experience. This willingness to see taboo subjects clearly is, well, sexy.
From there, Sarah Jo offers Josh a primer on what to teach her. She is insecure about her lack of experience, for which the scar serves as both cause and metaphor, and wishes to make up for lost time. Is it realistic that a woman initially this delayed is so self-aware about the causes of her neuroses? I’ve met people like that; hell, I’ve been people like that. Self-awareness is a powerful way to dodge emotions. Admit to something up front, say what you’re supposed to say, and go back to living a life of evasion. Except that Sarah Jo walks it like she talks it. Having breached her worst fear, escaping her preconceived sense of rejection with sex with a good-looking older man, Sarah Jo is ready to break out of her self-imposed shackles. In these passages, Dunham captures multiple feelings at once that are also oft-ignored by cinema: the elation of acceptance and the fact that sex is work. Sarah Jo has to figure out what she likes, and she and Josh have to figure out what they like together.
As a filmmaker, Dunham skillfully tears you between joy for Sarah Jo and pity for Heather, who, besides being very pregnant, is overweight and over-worked, using her love for her son to launder her frustrations with Josh. Dunham adds an uncomfortable layer to the story by playing Heather herself. “Girls” became famous in part for Dunham’s frequent nudity, which was read, depending on the politics of the reader, as either empowering or self-hating. (I found it to be both.)
Here, Dunham emphasizes Heather’s girth, giving her a humiliating scene in which she discovers Josh’s infidelity while stuck on the kitchen floor on the verge of giving birth. Perhaps more humiliating, Dunham refuses to allow Heather’s point of view to dominate the scene, as it is ceded to Sarah Jo, who discovers that Josh isn’t as innocent as he pretends to be. The neuroses of this moment are exponential: split between a sharp perception of each character’s emotional state and a sense that Dunham, no longer the darling enfant terrible of “Girls” and all too aware of it, is transferring her own emotions onto a younger fictional avatar.
We assume that Josh and Sarah Jo’s affair will be the driving concern of “Sharp Stick,” though Dunham upends this preconception. Two-thirds of the way into its trim 86-minute running time, the film starts all over again, with Sarah Jo consuming porn and hooking up with men she meets online. She devises a chart of all the sexual acts she needs to complete, as if she’s earning a black belt in her idea of sexual normalcy. Dunham’s transition into this thread is blunt and, if one is to take the entire story literally, almost arbitrary. Taken figuratively, however, the narrative suggests a series of variations on the fantasies a wallflower has of blooming.
The hysterectomy backstory isn’t incidental. Dunham had one, and she uses this event as an epitome of the female vulnerability that courses through “Sharp Stick,” which is named after the condescending phrase that a doctor used to describe the scalpel that cut into Sarah Jo. Having had an operation that caused her to go through menopause at a young age, Sarah Jo is denied reproductive abilities, which she seems to feel robs her of her membership to the female fraternity in some way. (The admission of these feelings is itself, in our reliably outraged culture, probably controversial.)
The movie is positively obsessed by reproduction and its social impact. Sarah Jo can’t get pregnant, and renders herself a pariah at first. Heather is pregnant, and at odds with her husband. Treina gets pregnant, aborts it when she’s abandoned by her lover, and, in an audacious twist, has a shower for a baby that won’t exist. One can’t tell whether this scene is meant to parody hipster pretentiousness or comment on Treina’s sense of guilt or both or neither, and the murkiness invests the sequence with an irresolvable power.
On top of all that shit, there’s a vivid sense in “Sharp Stick” of the Los Angeles fringes, where has-beens and never-weres play out sleazier, smaller versions of the fantasies Hollywood sells. The film’s sense of beauty with a rotten foundation exists in the tradition of countless L.A. movies, from “The Long Goodbye” to “Mulholland Drive” to the more recent and more directly related “The Invitation” and “She Dies Tomorrow.” The scenes in Josh and Heather’s kitchen particularly express precariousness. Built atop a cliff, you wait for the house to fall over from the internal turmoil. Meanwhile, the motel where Sarah Jo and her family live suggests the danger that Josh and Heather’s money allow them to avoid—an underworld of people on the fringes.
The actors are all superb, especially Froseth, who invests Sarah Jo with a startling variety of personal quirks that evolve as she enters into the human sexual comedy, as Philip Roth might’ve said. She shows you how a schoolgirl type can become an adventurous male fantasy, and how both of those types are ultimately illusions, adopted by Sarah Jo as a defense and discarded as she begins to know herself. Judging from this role, it seems as if Froseth can play anything, and her final moment in “Sharp Stick” is among the most ecstatic and extraordinary scenes in recent cinema—a close-up of a hard-earned smile that suggests nothing less than transcendence.