I can’t remember that last time I wanted to grab the reigns of a movie as badly as I did while watching Sharp Stick, Lena Dunham’s return to directing self-written material since her acclaimed HBO series Girls. With this latest endeavour, Dunham is heading in a good direction with interesting and peculiar characters and then, two-thirds through the movie, Sharp Stick takes a hard turn into another character arc that seems like an unfair trade-off for the cast and the audience.
Sharp Stick wallows in a hazy Californian lifestyle as movie goers wander with Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth of The Assistant), an aspiring caregiver with a promiscuous, jaded family (Mom played by Possessor Uncut’s Jennifer Jason Leigh, sister played by Zola’s Taylour Paige). Sarah Jo confuses friendliness with romantic feelings as she coyly tries to interpret her relationship with Josh (Sweet Virginia’s Jon Bernthal), the father of the child Sarah Jo is supervising. Josh, fully aware of Sarah Jo’s confusion, tries to redirect her only to enable her further and, together, they form a mutual affair.
This affair, while a little unnerving, is actually where Sharp Stick finds its groove. The movie is essentially about imperfect people who have recognized, in one way or another, their flaws and realize they need to be vulnerable in order to strive or improve on themselves. Most coming-of-age stories are about that personal embrace but by Dunham leaping immediately over that epiphany, this allows Sharp Stick to explore different personal experimentations. They may make us feel uncomfortable, but that’s the point and, for me, it worked.
Sharp Stick starts to suffer when the personal exploration turns into a sexual awakening. After Sarah Jo’s physical relationship blossoms with Josh, she becomes more independent which includes a sexual “bucket list” or “dream board”. It’s understandable for someone who has been previously sheltered to be excited about new experiences, such as broadening their own sexual needs, though this character development isn’t exactly original. But when one goal included “necrophilia” after Sarah Jo had done her research, I was permanently concerned Dunham had lost the plot; especially since other fetishes are not listed (none that I could spot, at least).
A considerate porn star who becomes an inspiration for Sarah Jo (a charismatic Scott Speedman) is an amusing addition, but the caregiver’s new journey drifts Sharp Stick into shallow waters, resulting in an unsatisfying ending that drives the story in an unnecessary circle.
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Addison Wylie: @AddisonWylie