The “losing your virginity” cinematic subgenre gets an intriguing spin in Sharp Stick. This is the first film Lena Dunham has written and directed since 2011’s Tiny Furniture. In the intervening decade, she affected both television (for the better, I’d say) and online discourse (unquestionably for the worse, though it’s not as if that can really be blamed on her) with her hit show Girls. Among other things, that series was known for its often-bracing approach to sexuality, and Dunham applies that same sensibility here, though to much more sensitive ends than the frequent cringiness of Girls.

Sara Jo (Christine Froseth) is more unworldly than one would think a Los Angeles Gen-Zer not cloistered by religion could be. Though 26 years old, she knows almost nothing about matters of sex — her initial interpretation of what a “blowjob” means is completely literal. A brutal bout of endometriosis caused her to have a hysterectomy at 15 and go through menopause at 17, leaving her trepidatious about sex ever since. “I don’t feel my age, and I don’t feel my body,” she says. But she wants to change that, and decides to get proactive about finally doing the deed. Unfortunately, she decides the best man for the job is her employer, Josh (Jon Bernthal working at the height of his himbo powers). She acts as a caretaker for his child with Heather (Dunham); the young boy lives with Down syndrome. Josh is reticent, but only for as long as it takes for her — and him, of course — to talk himself into it. The affair goes about as well as you expect, and in the aftermath of heartbreak, Sara Jo resolves to take further control of her sexuality by making a checklist of acts to perform and get more experience under her belt (so to speak).

From Sharp Stick

Froseth is acutely attuned to the particulars of an offbeat character who could have easily been too annoying, too unbelievable, too uncomfortable to watch, or otherwise off in a hundred different ways. The film’s most impressive feat is that it manages to thread a precise needle with Sara Jo, with Froseth and Dunham’s script and direction managing to make her journey equal parts sexy, discomfiting, awkward, and endearing. The movie is dealing with a mess of tricky questions around consent and agency, and understands that it’s more important to let the protagonist follow an arc that makes sense than it is to hold the viewer’s hand with pat answers to any of these issues. Sara Jo is an adult and fully knows what she wants, but she’s also extraordinarily naive, and the film has to work through this situation without being overly precious about her.

Where the movie does stumble, it mostly does so because of its refusal to explain what Sara Jo’s “deal” is. At first viewing, I thought this was an admirably non-condescending story about an a person living with undiagnosed autisim, but then shortly before the Sundance premiere, it emerged that the creators can’t quite decide whether Sara Jo is supposed to be neurodivergent (their current line is that she is not). For a film that finds its greatest impact in specificity, that vagueness can be frustrating. Sharp Stick doesn’t always stick the landing with its thematic gymnastics, but it still manages an impressive routine.

YouTube video

Sharp Stick is now playing in select theaters, and will be available on VOD August 16.

Dan Schindel is a freelance writer and copy editor living in Brooklyn, and a former associate editor at Hyperallergic. His portfolio and links are here.