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Lena Dunham’s sophomore feature, “Sharp Stick,” opens with Taylour Paige doing a TikTok dance over a trap beat. In an ordinary year, this sequence might promptly set the entire auditorium abuzz at the film’s Sundance premiere: Dunham rubbing it in the faces of critics who have pestered her over lack of diversity throughout six seasons of her acclaimed HBO series, “Girls.” But this isn’t an ordinary year, as COVID-19 has prompted Sundance to scrap in-person festivities and move everything online.
After that opener, Dunham immediately retreats to the familiar territory of a nuclear family with two sisters and a single mother, a dynamic not foreign to those who saw her 2010 debut “Tiny Furniture.” As Paige’s Treina rehearses her moves, her sister, Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth, “The Assistant”), meekly holds the camera phone as their libertine, five-time-divorced mother, Marilyn (Jennifer Jason Leigh), muses about the internet celebrity grind.
The film then cuts to them sitting around the table sharing a smoke and vibing to Khia’s notoriously lewd 2002 hit single, “My Neck, My Back (Lick It).” It’s apparent that Marilyn sees herself more as one of the girls than as a parent, as she speaks to them sans filter about sex and drugs. There’s a scene later filling us in on how this interracial family came to be, though the explanation is superfluous; they are convincing and exhibit fine screen chemistry.
It turns out that Treina is the normie sister and Sarah Jo is actually Dunham’s onscreen surrogate. While attending Caregiving Essentials for Younger People With Special Needs sessions virtually, Sarah Jo rubs a scar near her private parts off cam. Wearing multiple plastic hair clips on her head and long sleeves under a flowery sundress, the 26-year-old exudes both the wide-eyed eagerness of Reese Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick in “Election” and the sheltered naiveté of Alana Haim’s Alana Kane in “Licorice Pizza.” Sarah Jo is placed as a caregiver in the family of Zach (Liam Michel Saux), his hip, white-dude-who-raps, stay-at-home dad, Josh (Jon Bernthal), and nagging, very pregnant realtor mom, Heather (Dunham).
When Treina, through a little social-media sleuthing, catches her man hanging out with his ex’s cousin at Universal Studios, Marilyn offers this advice: “You wanna know if he is really yours? You look him in the eye and you say, ‘Do you find me beautiful?’ It’s foolproof . . . The truth — men love a problem. Interesting men, you know, like complicated men, they love a backstory.” But it is Sarah Jo who internalizes this lesson and proceeds to test it on Josh, exposing her scar and oversharing her hysterectomy procedure. Though Josh initially resists, the prospect of deflowering a virgin is apparently too good for him to pass up. The torrid affair that follows doesn’t break any new ground, though.
With “Tiny Furniture” and “Girls,” Dunham detailed narcissism, aimlessness, internet fame and the gig economy with perfect pitch. Though critics initially lauded her for these observations of social mores, her thoughtless indiscretions on social media have since suggested these anecdotes may have been products of a lack of self-awareness rather than introspection. These snippets are still present in “Sharp Stick,” though they are few and far between.
There is a pet-to-threat moment when Heather first compliments Sarah Jo for being “such a gem” with Zach that makes it bearable for her to leave him every day and go to work; in the same breath, Heather complains about Sarah Jo not cleaning up after Zach and putting his things away. There’s also a revealing baby shower, thrown as an Instagram moment in spite of Treina’s having terminated her pregnancy. “We show this child that it was wanted even if it cannot be completed,” Marilyn says.
“Tiny Furniture” preceded the thematically comparable “The Worst Person in the World” by more than a decade, and that’s something to be commended. But by the time Sarah Jo and Josh are sharing magic mushrooms, it feels like Dunham hasn’t progressed much after all this time. She does appear to be pushing herself outside her comfort zone by setting “Sharp Stick” in Malibu rather than her old haunts in New York City, encapsulating the peculiarly West Coast vernacular and warm, colorful but cluttered aesthetics. She also exhibits maturity as an actress. But the use of extra-diegetic music feels very generic, nondescript Indiewood. Indeed, the film’s novelty wears off almost as soon as it exhausts the supply of shock-value hip-hop on its playlist.
Josh introduces Sarah Jo to internet porn, and she experiences an epiphany that sets off the third act. She takes scrupulous notes and craftily compiles a handy checklist of sexual activities for her to tick off one by one. She also becomes obsessed with adult performer Vance Leroy (Scott Speedman) and begins writing him. The faux-porn inserts shot according to female gaze are mildly interesting, with Vance saying “I feel so connected to you” while looking directly into the camera.
One aspect of the story that’s not fully explored is the lack of a dad in Sarah Jo’s upbringing. Is she yearning for a father figure instead of sex and doesn’t know the difference? Has she mistaken Josh’s paternal instincts for flattery or some sort of come-on? Given Marilyn’s overt sexual candor, it makes little sense that Sarah Jo would have maintained her virginity until age 26. Had the film meaningfully explored these questions instead of proceeding with Sarah Jo’s late-start sexual exploits, we might have had something special here.
“Sharp Stick” made its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.