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Rude Sexual Awakening

Sundance Institute

Sharp Stick (2022)

Lena Dunham has a singular gift: She makes horndog art about the most irritating people in America which somehow captures the zeitgeist. In her first movie in 11 years and her first filmed work since “Girls” went off air, she has moved the setting to Los Angeles, but the basic theme of self-discovery-through-sexual-misadventure remains the same. Your enjoyment of this will depend on your tolerance for being completely unable to tear yourself away.

Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth, what a trouper) is 26, and lives at home with her much-divorced mother Marilyn (Jennifer Jason Leigh, as ever criminally underused) and influencer older sister Treina (Taylour Paige). It quickly becomes clear that Sarah Jo suffers from the “Kajillionaire” problem – under an oppressive home life, she acts a good decade younger than she really is. She gets a part-time job as a carer for a young boy with Down’s, though the tasks she’s shown doing are those of a new babysitter instead of a professional adult. The boy’s parents are the anxiously controlling, heavily pregnant Heather (Ms. Dunham) and doofus stay-at-home Josh (Jon Bernthal, visibly enjoying the hell out of playing against type). Without too many spoilers, it’s not long before Sarah Jo experiences a sexual epiphany. At 26 she has never even thought about sex, much less masturbated, much less kissed somebody. While not everyone needs to be an acrobatic professional, for someone who attended an American middle school to be this blank a slate is beyond belief. Therefore Sarah Jo is given a medical explanation for this fear of her own body, which is fairly insulting. But be that as it may. It’s important to note she also – age 26, in Los Angeles, in a home with Wi-Fi and with so many ex-stepdads their faces blend together – discovers porn for the first time. And speaking of acrobatic professionals, Sarah Jo rapidly becomes a devotee of the work of Vance (Scott Speedman, with a throat tattoo, and visibly beside himself with glee).

So, at work Sarah Jo has embarrassing, talky sexual encounters with the whiny, needy Josh. At home Marilyn throws Treina a party to celebrate her choosing to have an abortion, with Treina frowning in front of slogan balloons that Sarah Jo dutifully snaps for the gram. The whole thing is an absolutely wild mess of bad decisions by dumb people papered over with live-laugh-love sloganeering, and the annoying thing is it somehow captures the emotional truth of right now. This is a vapid world, all image and no reality, all forced cheer and fake sexuality and hardly any genuine human connection. If Sarah Jo isn’t cutting up cardboard paper to make herself a sexual to-do list that she works through with joyless efficiency, she’s monologuing about how completing the joyless to-do list is her only hope to prove herself as worthy of love. Ms. Froseth manages to find a core of sanity in a character that reads as completely away with the fairies, and Mr. Bernthal creates a loser, who knows he’s a loser, without being creepy to boot. It’s hard to say which is the bigger achievement.

The overall achievement remains Ms. Dunham’s, of course. If Sarah Jo was 16, you’d be laughing at her childishness and wincing at her mistakes. Since she’s 26, it’s a distressing expose of how badly American society has gone off the rails. Someone can achieve full adulthood without realizing they have the emotional depth of a paddling pool, and someone can decide that it’s possible to gain emotional depth by ticking off physical experiences like throwing groceries into a cart. The sexual frankness of Ms. Dunham’s work is a large part of its appeal, but the main part is that she focuses on people’s embarrassments. She is an absolute genius at depicting moments remembered with a hot sense of shame, the secret histories that people remember but hate to recount. This is a dark talent; it’s no wonder she is a lightning rod for people’s feelings about sex, mistakes, messy personal lives, awkward bodies, etc. But good lord, her work is so incredibly watchable, with as much of an auteur stamp on it as anything by the Italians from the ’60s. It means all its aggravations are well worth it, because it’s more enjoyable than we care to admit.


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