‘Sharp Stick’ review: Lena Dunham returns with a provocative comedy

Photo: Sharp Stick

Editor's note: This review originally ran as part of our coverage of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 28, 2022. It has been republished in light of the film's debut in theaters.

Lena Dunham’s first feature since 2010’s "Tiny Furniture" (she made HBO’s "Girls" in the interim), "Sharp Stick" certainly feels like the product of a woman reflecting on more than a decade in the spotlight, with all the praise, criticism and controversy that entails. 

RELATED: Movie review: ‘Marcel the Shell with Shoes On’ is pure magic

About "Sharp Stick": An unconventional coming-of-age story

It’s a grand understatement to say the past few years in Dunham’s life have been eventful; to summarize it all would take up about as much time as "Sharp Stick" does, so let’s just say that it’s complicated. Regardless, the real-life event that most likely inspired her script is her hysterectomy. (Dunham specifically cited "medical trauma" as an influence in a Sundance Q&A session.)

Here, that experience belongs to 26-year-old protagonist Sarah Jo, played with idiosyncratic enthusiasm by Kristine Froseth. The procedure and its aftermath cause Sarah Jo to emotionally regress to a naive, almost childlike state, stunting her emotional growth and leaving her fearful of sex. Enter an aw-shucks himbo (Jon Bernthal) who awakens something inside her, launching Sarah Jo into something of a sexual rumspringa — including an obsession with her new favorite porn star (played by Scott Speedman).

WATCH FREE ON TUBI: Scott Speedman in the thriller "Good Neighbors"get the app

"Sharp Stick": A sexual rumspringa


Kristine Froseth and Jon Bernthal appear in "Sharp Stick" by Lena Dunham, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

Dunham essentially performs a full-on pivot to provocateur with this film — it is a lot. Yet the intensity is leavened by the kind of whimsical quirks typically found in the films of artists like Miranda July. (Sarah Jo’s alphabetical sexual checklist — A for anal, the list goes on — is written out as a big arts-and-crafts mural in her room.) 

WATCH FREE ON TUBI: Joey King leads the coming-of-age dramedy "Summer ’03" get the app

The result is messy, less a cohesive motion picture than the first-draft sketching of an artist scrambling to put herself back together after years of medical and professional strife. It feels like an elevation of Dunham’s visual craft, to be sure, toying with the limits of her typical formalism with animated sequences and playful editing. And if it doesn't altogether work, it still shows Dunham growing as an artist, exorcising her personal demons around sex and personhood. 

"Sharp Stick" may be self-consciously provocative, but that provocation at least provides plenty to unpack.

Grade: B-

You can watch the green-band trailer here; please note that the content is age-restricted and viewers must verify age with YouTube before viewing.

Rated R. 86 minutes. Dir: Lena Dunham. Featuring: Kristine Froseth, Jon Bernthal, Scott Speedman, Lena Dunham, Taylour Paige, Jennifer Jason Leigh. "Sharp Stick" premieres in select theaters July 29 and opens nationwide Aug. 5.

About the writer: Clint Worthington is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Spool, and a Senior Writer at Consequence. You can find his other work at Vulture, Nerdist, RogerEbert.com, and elsewhere.

Make it a double feature with "Professor Marston and the Wonder Women," streaming free on Tubi

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017): It turns out there’s more to Wonder Woman’s (real world) origin story than we knew. This thoughtful, sexy biographical drama looks at the psychologist and comic book writer who first created the Wonder Woman character, and the two women who helped him do it. Rated R. 108 minutes. Dir: Angela Robinson. Featuring: Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, Bella Heathcote, Connie Britton, Oliver Platt.

"Professor Marston and the Wonder Women" is streaming free on Tubiget the app

How to watch "Sharp Stick"

"Sharp Stick" premiered in July and expanded to theaters nationwide Aug. 5. It will be available on digital platforms starting Aug. 16.

About Tubi: Tubi has more than 40,000 movies and television series from over 250 content partners, including every major studio, in addition to the largest offering of free live local and national news channels in streaming. The platform gives fans of entertainment, news and sports an easy way to discover new content that is available completely free.

Tubi is available on Android and iOS mobile devices, Amazon Echo Show, Google Nest Hub Max, Comcast Xfinity X1, Cox Contour, and on OTT devices such as Amazon Fire TV, Vizio TVs, Sony TVs, Samsung TVs, Roku, Apple TV, Chromecast, Android TV, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X | S, and soon on Hisense TVs globally. Consumers can also watch Tubi content on the web at http://www.tubi.tv/.

Tubi and this television station are both owned by the FOX Corporation.