Pictured: Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth) in a scene from 'Sharp Stick', a Los Angeles-set film by writer-director Lena Dunham. Still courtesy of Sundance Institute
Sharp Stick is sure to divide opinion. There will be those that hate it and those that hate it a lot. Those that hate it a lot will object to writer-director Lena Dunham’s portrayal of an autistic protagonist. Not that the ‘A’ word is ever mentioned but Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth) presents with the tropes of high-functioning autism: conditioned to be helpful and follow instructions but insensitive to others without being narcissistic.
Dunham, best known for the hit HBO television series Girls in which she also starred, hasn’t made a film since for 2010 debut, Tiny Furniture. She has absolutely earned the right to try something challenging. Since debuting Sharp Stick at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, she has already completed her third film, Catherine, Called Birdy, which airs on Amazon Prime in the autumn. Critics can suck it.
Set in the fringes of Hollywood, Sharp Stick depicts Sarah Jo’s sexual awakening, seemingly motivated by conversations she has with her biological mother, Marilyn (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and adopted sister, Treina (Taylour Paige). Dunham’s protagonist had a radical hysterectomy as a teenager and is unable to have children. Dunham is similarly unable to bear children. Though the circumstances differ, Dunham’s film unquestionably comes from an honest place.
Sarah Jo, who wears a wristband that bears her name so she couldn’t pretend to be anyone else, works as a caregiver to a couple, Heather (Dunham) and Josh (Jon Bernthal) who have a son, Zach (Liam Michel Saux) with Down Syndrome. She is basically Zach’s asexual best friend and study buddy, colouring in pictures alongside him. The difference is that Sarah Jo can switch out and offer to help the household when Zach is otherwise engaged, but for the most part she’s not attuned to adult behaviour.
Dunham contextualises this. Sarah Jo’s adopted sister Treina exists in a world of play, posting images and videos of herself on Instagram and TikTok in the hope of being a social media influencer – Sarah Jo helps with the filming. Treina is providing a service to an unseen customer base, essentially existing in her own bubble. Except that Marilyn hounds her about income: is she making money or not? Treina is also pregnant from a boy who has long since left the picture, in fact was never in it.
We are to assume that Sarah Jo had schooling that kept her away from the real world and has come to accept a world of play as reality. Her interest in sex in piqued. Not because there’s a man in Marilyn’s life – none of her lovers stuck around. Rather because she’d heard about it.
Sarah Jo’s one interaction with socio-economic reality is to collect rent payments for the man upstairs, who refuses to pay. In the friendliest manner she can muster, she issues a pre-eviction notice. The errant tenant snatches it from her and responds with curse words. Sarah Jo wears a face mask, reducing any transmission of Covid 19. Sharp Stick is a rarity in modern cinema in acknowledging the reality of living with Covid.
Dunham’s film is a far cry from the problematised, moralistic films made by men about women’s pursuit of sexual pleasure, such as Looking for Mr. Goodbar. Dunham withholds judgment as she presents Sarah Jo’s exploration as humorous. However, our response is to perceive Sarah Jo as vulnerable and open to abuse, however much Dunham shows her in control of the choices that she makes.
The first of these is to launch herself at Josh, who after initially resisting, has sex with her. It is later revealed that he has been serially unfaithful to Heather. Sarah Jo can’t just stop at one sexual encounter. She continues to make herself available to Josh. For his part, he partakes.
Pictured: Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth, right) with Zach (Liam Michel Saux), Heather (Lena Dunham) and Josh (Jon Bernthal, left) in a scene from the Los Angeles-set film, 'Sharp Stick', written and directed by Lena Dunham. Still courtesy of Sundance Institute
Josh knows Yuli (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) a guy in the music industry and later Sarah Jo will seek him out. Her relationship with Josh escapes Heather’s notice. Offering to help more, Heather criticises Sarah Jo for not clearing materials away, not acknowledging that Sarah Jo may not understand her sternly sarcastic tone; Dunham certainly hasn’t written a sympathetic part for herself.
There are two moments of drama. First when the heavily pregnant Heather slips on her own water as it breaks; she slides down in her kitchen. Sarah Jo telephone Josh but Heather notices Sarah Jo’s necklace is similar to one she has seen before and realises that it is a gift from Josh. Josh returns, but Heather tells him that she wants to go to hospital in an ambulance, not in his car. Heather confronts Josh over having sex with Sarah Jo. She wants Sarah Jo to leave and for Zach to be looked after by someone else. Sarah Jo eventually departs.
The second occurs when Treina loses her child. A party is held – a nearly-baby shower. A male guest brings a toy for the child, that is exactly the wrong thing, misunderstanding what one should bring to a nearly-baby shower. The purpose of the event is to acknowledge the unborn baby’s fleeting existence, to put it behind Treina.
After an initial period of hiding away – her placement officer, Mercedes (Janicza Bravo) leaves her a pizza and details of another child with special needs who could use her care – Sarah Jo sets out to tick sexual experiences off a list. Dunham’s worst idea is to have Sarah Jo deliver a blow job by literally blowing on (off-screen) male genitals. She advertises sexual favours online. Men can visit her, and she will perform one of the acts on her list. She also obsesses over male porn star, Vance Leroy (Scott Speedman), having been told that everyone should have their own favourite porn star. Incidentally, Dunham depicts pornography in a stylized way so that there is no female nudity. This is by far the least annoying, not to mention most socially responsible, aspect of her film.
Pictured: Learning sexual pleasure. Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth) and Josh (Jon Bernthal) in a scene from the Los Angeles set film, 'Sharp Stick', written and directed by Lena Dunham. Still courtesy of Sundance Institute
Sarah Jo doesn’t quite get round to pleasuring Arvin (Luka Sabbat), who leaves behind some alcohol. Treina is very keen to find out more about him. Arvin, as it turns out, works in the adult entertainment industry and accepts Sarah Jo’s fan letter to deliver to Vance. She goes to a bar to seek out Yuli. The bar scene has a particular vibe. Sarah Jo doesn’t know what to drink. ‘How about a white wine?’ the bartender suggests. Sarah Jo gulps it. She asks for an introduction to Yuli. Yuli tells the bartender to shut the bar for the night. He interests Sarah Jo in cocaine, which she snorts then coughs – a first time hard-drug taker. Yuli then rips her blouse and black buttons fly everywhere. This disturbs Sarah Jo. Yuli apologises profusely.
Sarah Jo has no idea how to interact meaningfully with other people. She surprises Josh, Heather, Zach and Heather’s new baby by leaping out from behind a bush while the family is out for a walk to tell them about all the sex acts that she has participated in, as if to say, look at me now, I’m growing up. She is ripe for a restraining order. This causes Heather and Josh to argue with one another, when Josh is told to take Zach away. The scene is played for a laugh (laughs would be pushing it) but no one comes out of it with any credit, certainly not Dunham the filmmaker.
There is a happy ending of sorts. Arvin passes on a video message from Vance and Sarah Jo takes a job looking after a young girl. The guy upstairs doesn’t pay his rent. The world isn’t perfect.
The title comes from the expression, ‘it is better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick’, which is a backhanded compliment, a level of sarcasm that Sarah Jo would struggle to understand. The characters that Dunham has created aren’t exactly relatable, but they’re not completely obnoxious or threatening either. Dunham does not ‘other’ disability, rather integrate it in a form of everyday reality. Life is messy. People are defined not by productive jobs rather than by their interactions. Sharp Stick isn’t a comfortable film to watch – you don’t laugh at or with the characters. Dunham depicts a world in which so-called normal people are just as messed up as so-called disabled people. Each group can derive just as much pleasure out of life as the other. It is her way of reconciling sadness in her life, which is not to feel sorry for oneself, but instead to embrace the optimism of her protagonist. If this annoys people - too bad.