The art of portraying vacuous characters on screen is a tricky beast. The best examples manage to remove themselves from the vacuum, dissecting it and laying it bare, or at least throwing you into its sickly vortex and making you question your participation in the amorality, like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia does at its best. Lena Dunham’s latest writer-director credit, Sharp Stick, her first since 2010’s acclaimed Tiny Furniture, appears to adopt the emptiness of its subjects as its distinguishing characteristic.
Ostensibly a coming-of-age tale, the film follows 26-year-old Lisa Jo (Kristine Froseth) in her belated sexual awakening. Having suffered from the physical and psychological scars of a childhood hysterectomy, she pleads with Josh (Jon Berthnal), the father of the child she has been employed to babysit, and husband to a pregnant Heather (Lena Dunham), to be the one to whom she loses her virginity. In his weakness, he agrees, sparking an unequal affair which quickly unravels. Through this affair and its aftermath, Lisa Jo begins to grow in sexual confidence, discovering her favourtie pornstar and even making a checklist of sexual acts which she hurriedly seeks to complete in a flurry of (very) brief encounters.
There is perhaps some taut, feminist observation on female sexuality and womanhood buried miles deep here, but I fear that not even Time Team could excavate it. It is, unfortunately, a shallow mess of a film, brimming with the kind of contemptuous LA, TikTok-adjacent superficiality which it should be actively challenging. If it is trying to penetrate the sleazy veneer showcased by the film (which with the benefit of the doubt I’m sure it is), then Dunham’s messy, uneven, chaotic storytelling is too blunt to execute this attempt. Jennifer Jason Leigh, who gives a characteristically charismatic turn as Lisa Jo’s mother, and Jon Berthnal, do their best to inject the film with some authentic entertainment, rather than the feather-headedness that Dunham mistakes it for in this flick.
What’s even more disappointing is that the story itself allows ample opportunity for character development. A 26-year-old virgin who grew up on the peripheries of Hollywood alongside a sexually liberated mother and sister (Taylour Paige) without a father figure, navigating her sexuality for the first time through her older employer and a pornstar, is an interesting setup. But Dunham’s shock jock sensibility hijacks it into something altogether more empty.
Sharp Stick does not have a UK release date yet.
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