Sundance Film Festival Review- The blunt end of “Sharp Stick”

Sundance Film Festival Review- The blunt end of “Sharp Stick”
Kristine Froseth and Jon Bernthal appear in <i>Sharp Stick</i> by Lena Dunham, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

Around 5 minutes into Sharp Stick 26 year old Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth) goes to put a “pre-eviction” note on the door of a tenant her mother is about to evict from the apartment complex they run. Or, so it seems it is an apartment complex. They refer to him as the tenant in 1-A, but really, no other sprawling set of buildings/rooms are ever shown.

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Sarah Jo is very innocent and kind, so we wants to give the tenant notice for a notice, thinking that will help him.

As she approaches the man’s apartment to knock/slip the note under his door you can see an NRA sticker in his window as well and if I remember correctly an American Flag. Sarah Jo has her face mask on, as Covid is a reality in this film. And when the man in 1-A opens the door to cruelly crumple up the note that Sarah Jo was so nice to provide him, he too is wearing a face mask.  This is clearly an exercise to illustrate just how naive and overly kind Sarah Jo is as a character. Yet, I’m left there thinking, the little but pertinent information provided about the man in 1-A would suggest he’d never put on a face mask, let alone in his own home that he clearly wants you to know he is free to defend with guns.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Who cares about such a small detail in a film that is not about the man in 1-A?” The issue becomes that this is just mistake one of Sharp Stick in what has become an epidemic in film making today. Put together a great story with a worthy message and some little flaws mean nothing. But when these tiny flaws are consistent and end up contradicting what you’re trying to say, it rips the foundations of your movie straight out.

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At 26, Sarah Jo is still a virgin. She lives with her mother and sister and is part of a program that places her with families who have special needs children and could use some assistance. She has some scars on her belly from an incident when she was younger that forced doctors to perform a hysterectomy on her.

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She is ashamed of these scars and they have added weight into why she is still a virgin.

One day, she decided she wants Josh (Jon Bernthal), the father of the child she is helping care for to be the one she first sleeps with. The two start a wild affair, but after things come to a breaking point Sarah Jo takes it upon herself to take the reigns of her sexual awakening. She makes a list of all the things she wants to experience, makes a website to meet others to join her in her venture, and writes copious diary entries meant as a letter to her newly discovered favorite porn star.

Though the stories are nowhere near similar, Sharp Stick feels like diet Breaking the Waves. The biggest difference is that Bess gets the full Lars Von Trier treatment in Breaking the Waves, where Sarah Jo (though never 100% treated with kindness) get the kid glove treatment. Besides one person ripping her top open– which she escapes with no physical harm– and a case of what I can only suspect is crabs, is the extent of the pressure Sarah Jo has to deal with. Especially since condoms seem to be item Sarah Jo doesn’t know exist.

It’s never clearly expressed, but it’s alluded that Sarah Jo suffers from some state of mental illness. She goes to classes that consist of 3 other students and it feels like it is meant to place those with disabilities as care taker for others with disabilities. But Sarah Jo’s level of understanding changes depending on where the story wants to go next. She has her own computer, a sociable sister, and a mother who for no reason spends random nights talking about how her daughters were born with explicit detail, even explaining multiple times to them what a chode is. With all this, Sarah Jo still never knew pornography existed until Josh shows it to her.

She needs to have every life experience explained to her in so many ways. Then when she gets those crabs, she figures out how to get rid of them all on her own? Sure, she can look it up and get the answers, but she’s been shown to never done anything like that before. She falls into that classic joke of thinking a blowjob meant literally blowing on someone’s penis, but knew how to build her own website and discretely communicate with perverts in the matter of a single night.

I’ve said a million times before, but I appreciate when a film allows me to work things out for myself instead of just throwing bags of exposition at me every five seconds. Sharp Stick however just never explains things till they just appear on screen and they still don’t make any sense. For 40 minutes, I was led to believer that Sarah Jo’s room was obviously in the same home as her Mother and Sister. Even then men start showing up to participate in Sarah Jo’s “self training”, we are never told that she actually lives in a small apartment separated from her family.

And yet, even though she lives in an off-shoot from the rest of the family, she just leaves her door open so anyone can clearly see the large checklists she made on her wall of all the sexual experiences she needs/wants to experience. Anyone could come to her door, look to the right and see big construction paper signs that read; Anal, Gangbang, even Necrophilia, right there on her wall. With check marks next the ones she’s accomplished, by the way!

It’s fine if you still want to just chalk it up to her naivety, but no one ever noticed! The real pain and sickness of the people in this world would have caught up with Sarah Jo real quick if she is this absent minded. Even when her dream male porn star receives the kind of worrying letter she has written to him, he responds with kind loving words. I’m not trying to say that everyone who produces and makes porno are criminals and jerks, but sending a loving notice of appreciation and advice is not what this man would do.

And I get it, Lena Dunham is trying to make a statement that sexual awareness, openness, and appreciation is not a bad thing. But Sharp Stick is just a messy and faulty attempt to explore that idea. I could sit here and go through a litany of other examples of the small details that eat away at almost every scene of Sharp Stick, but we’d be here forever. Till then just remember, if you have a huge tub of lube in your bathroom, be sure to be annoyed at the person who doesn’t bring any lube when you asked them to, even though you have that huge amount of it in your bathroom.

Final Grade: C-

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