(3.5/5) Starts as a quirky and provocative coming of age story but misses the mark when it attempts to become a full-fledged sex comedy.
Lena Dunham’s Sharp Stick is best described as almost two separate films - the first half is a sexual coming of age that follows Kristine Froseth’s Sarah Jo, an emotionally stunted, socially awkward 26 year-old virgin, as she enters an affair with Jon Bernthal’s Josh, the father of the special needs child she watches. It’s electric and intense as we watch her get swept up into something we know cannot end well. As expected, the affair ends in catastrophe in a brilliantly staged, nail-biting scene between Heather (Lena Dunham) and Sarah Jo, in which she realizes what has been happening. Josh enters the scene, realizing Heather knows, and as quick as the flick of a lightswitch, Josh goes from previously professing to Sarah Jo that he wants to leave his wife for her to screaming at her to leave their home and never come back. This scene feels particularly gut-punching, because up to this point, the film largely hinges on the excellent chemistry between Kristine Froseth and Jon Bernthal.
Jon Bernthal is incredible as Josh, playing him with a convincing and effortless charm that had Sarah Jo (and this viewer) convinced he was completely in love with her. Ultimately, the first half of the film culminates in being a pretty spot-on illustration of just how manipulative men can be - Josh is oozing with charm and charisma until the veil is completely lifted, to Sarah Jo’s complete, crushing disbelief. Kristine Froseth is also excellent as Sarah Jo. I’ve admired Kristene Froseth since she blew me away in the first episode (and only episode I watched, might have to rectify that now) of Looking for Alaska that screened at Tribeca TV Festival a few years ago. This role allows her to fully come into her own as an actor, and she steps up to the challenge, every scene more shock and cringe-inducing than the last.
Now for the second half - a major tonal shift occurs as we follow Sarah Jo’s absurd spiral into borderline insanity as she tries to win Josh back by attempting to gain years of sexual experiences in a matter of days. This type of heightened comedy that relies on shocking the viewer just did not work for me, especially when it was such a stark departure from the more grounded realism of the first half. Sarah Jo was already a character that walked a fine line between believable and cartoonish, and she soon descends into eye-rolling, bizarre behavior. Going from one awkward sexual experience to the next, she eventually finds clarity and enlightenment thanks to a porn star who provides her with ironically quite profound advice, which helps her reach the realization that yes, she will love again after this heartbreak.
The film ends on a relatively high note with a visually striking sequence that depicts her finally being able to experience true pleasure again with someone other than Josh. Bolstered by solid supporting performances by Taylour Paige and Jennifer Jason Leigh and Sarah Jo’s sister and mother, this film is an amalgamation of bold, daring ideas, in which some land and some do not. Ultimately, I appreciate the risks taken by Lena Dunham here, but I wish we could have stayed firmer in realism and not descended into absurdist, and often unfunny, comedy.