Mild spoilers below for several Sundance films.
“Congratulations, Vance Leroy. You are my porn star,” says Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth), the protagonist of Lena Dunham’s sophomore feature Sharp Stick, about halfway through the film. The 26-year-old had only recently discovered the vivid world of pornography, and in that moment, while flipping through an assortment of XXX clips, she had met her on-screen sexual match. Unlike the more stereotypically aggressive male porn stars, Vance Leroy (Scott Speedman) seemed gentle and attentive; in the clip, Vance looks directly at the camera and talks sensitively, calling the viewer beautiful and assuring whoever they are that what they’re currently doing “ain’t dirty.” It’s no surprise, then, that Sarah Jo, a sexually inexperienced young adult only now discovering what turns her on, would fall for this man. With his James Deen everyman appeal, he was the perfect balance of raw sexuality and approachable tenderness.
Recently premiered as part of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, Sharp Stick was inspired by Dunham’s own experience getting a hysterectomy when she was 31, but explores how such a procedure would affect the budding sexuality of a teenage girl. In Dunham’s imagining, Sarah Jo’s hysterectomy, which she got at the young age of 16, completely stifles her own developing carnal appetite. Still a virgin at 26, she decides to finally make up for lost time. She starts by seducing the married father of the child she acts as caretaker for (Jon Bernthal). But when things with him erupt in expected fashion, Sarah Jo, convinced that all that stands between them is her lack of experience, proceeds to move through a detailed checklist of various sexual acts, trying each one out with anonymous men she meets on dating apps.
Though some suspension of disbelief is required to buy into the idea that Sarah Jo — who, I should note, lives in Los Angeles with a sex-obsessed influencer sister (Taylour Paige) and a mother who habitually overshares stories about her very horny past (Jennifer Jason Leigh) — had avoided hearing about sex as much as she had avoided having it, Dunham’s willingness to dial up her central character’s naiveté does make for an at-times engaging exploration of one young woman’s pursuit to define her sexuality on her own (delayed) terms. As Sarah Jo moves through her personal A-Zs of Sex (hilariously visualized through a giant poster hung up on her otherwise bare wall), vowing to experiment with Anal and Bukkakke, Fisting and Gangbangs, she also learns what does and doesn’t appeal to her. As is the case with her discovery of Vance Leroy, Sarah Jo slowly but surely learns to place her own desires above others’, and eventually, her sexual pursuit morphs — what started as a ploy to win back the man who took her virginity ends in a place of genuine awakening for Sarah Jo, who realizes he was never worth it to begin with.
Sharp Stick wasn’t the only film at Sundance that centered on sexual discovery, nor was it the only film to treat the act of discovery as a riveting pursuit worthy of its own deep exploration. Running from January 20th to 30th, the all-virtual festival played host to a number of captivating films — traversing genre, from comedies and dramas, to suspenseful thrillers and campy horror flicks — that wrestled with what it means to be a sexual being in the modern world.
Dunham’s film had a sharp parallel in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande — in theme, if not exactly in directorial execution. A dialogue-heavy two-hander centered on a retired Religious Education teacher (Emma Thompson) and the strapping young escort (Daryl McCormack) she hires to have sex with her in a hotel room, the film is a brilliantly crafted exchange of ideas, slowly peeling away at each of its characters’ psyches until they are both left raw and exposed by film’s end. Unlike Sarah Jo, Leo Grande’s Nancy Stokes doesn’t begin the film as a virgin, but she does exhibit a similar lack of real-world sexual knowledge. And like Sarah Jo, Nancy, too, has a checklist of sorts that she wishes to complete through her paid sessions. In addition to standard intercourse, Nancy wants to try out 69-ing; she also wants to give and receive oral sex. But she refuses to let any of her sexual experiences be defined by whether or not it ends in orgasm — something the 55-year-old widow unabashedly admits she’s never experienced.
As directed by Animals’ Sophie Hyde, Leo Grande’s most impressive feat is the way it uses sex as a conduit to reflect on broader realities about modern society at large. The film is about sex, yes; it’s, of course, about sex work too. But above all, it’s about the way sex informs our very ways of being. Nancy spends a great deal of the film refusing to believe that Leo could ever be interested in her, insisting that he’d always have to look at her as a job and never as a human in order to be attracted to her. Leo continually refutes this reading, constantly reassuring her that he really sees her and is very attracted to what he sees. But rather than use this as a cheap narrative trick to make a point about young men being capable of finding older women attractive, the film digs deeper by couching Leo’s own definition of sexual attraction in something more cerebral than physical.
He tells Nancy that he loves his job, that bringing pleasure to others makes him feel good; not coincidentally, he sees sex not as a purely physical expression of attraction, but as a necessary outlet for routine pleasure — to him, sex is a commodity everyone should have access to. As a religion teacher, Nancy naturally has a different understanding of sex — and though her hiring of an escort constitutes an obvious effort to challenge her own puritanical sexual hangups, her semi-indoctrinated sexual beliefs still inform her sociopolitical stances in undeniable ways. The ingeniousness of Leo Grande’s screenplay lies in the juxtaposition of her beliefs with Leo’s, in turn highlighting just how much sex underlies everything.
Compare that with The Worst Person in the World, one of the festival’s buzziest titles thanks to its high placement on many a Best Films of 2021 list (my own included). Though less explicitly centered on sex, Joachim Trier’s final entry in his “Oslo” trilogy, about Julie (Renate Reinsve), a millennial woman navigating the perils of early adulthood, is similarly interested in the way sex defines our sense of self. The film is split into chapters, and in its shortest one, titled “Oral Sex in the Age of #MeToo,” our heroine goes semi-viral for a blog post questioning whether she could consider herself a feminist while also enjoying being “mouth-fucked.” Though Julie’s question is by no means novel — debates about “ethical sex under feminism” have been popping up in the blogosphere for years — Trier intimately understands how our desires can sometimes feel hypocritical to our images of ourselves. Julie’s sexual appetite is just one more thing she has to wrestle with when it seems to contradict who she wants to be. Through writing, however, she also realizes that it doesn’t have to be. Upon finishing, Julie shares the piece with her boyfriend, who then encourages her to share it with the internet. Interestingly, the act of sharing becomes its own form of sexual liberation — whether Julie is sharing her thoughts with the virtual world or with the very partner who elicits these feelings of sexual submission.
Of course, sexual submission can also be terrifying. In Palm Trees and Power Lines, first-time feature helmer Jamie Dack (who won the U.S. Dramatic Competition for Best Directing) dives into the darker corners of sexual discovery with an unsettling coming-of-age story that unfolds like a slowburn thriller. At the center of it is Lea (Lily McInerny, in a breakout debut), a disengaged high school student spending the summer before senior year aimlessly hanging out with her best friend while avoiding her mother, who is either in a good mood because she’s dating someone new or battling a depression spell because she’s single again.
With that setup, it’s easy to understand why Lea falls for 34-year-old Tom (Jonathan Tucker), who conveniently comes to her rescue when a diner owner attacks her after she and her friends try to dine-and-dash. Tom offers to drive a shaken Lea home; when she turns it down, he insists on driving alongside her while she walks instead, so concerned is he about making sure she gets home safely. One thing leads to another, and before long, the impressionable minor is lying to ditch her friends so she can spend every waking minute with a man twice her age.
The coupling of a cusp-of-adulthood teen with an older partner responsible for “showing them the ropes” is familiar film territory. (Look no further than fellow Sundance sensation, 2017’s Call Me By Your Name.) But often, these tales of adolescent sexual awakening hit expected beats. The relationships usually end tragically, leaving the younger partner reeling in heartbreak — until they suddenly get over it and realize that life goes on. Palm Trees uses these conventions to its sneaky benefit, toying with the formula to ultimately depict something far more horrifying than teenage heartache. Right as Lea lets her guard down and begins to feel comfortable acting on her sexual desire with Tom, he exploits it, gaining her trust only to sexually traffic her.
In Palm Trees, sex is not used as a tool for liberation, but as a weapon of destruction. Or, rather, sex’s liberatory capabilities are weaponized in ways that can be quite destructive. Dack’s careful direction expertly evokes this unnerving reality; much as puberty felt like hell in Carrie, carnal discovery has a certain menace about it here. As viewers, we see the warning signs even when Lea does not: she’s flattered when Tom calls her “mine,” saying things like, “I want to be that guy so you don’t have to get help from anybody else.” On the other side of the screen, we recognize these as mere tactics of isolation. Still, the eventual knife-twist reveal of Tom’s true motives arrives unexpectedly, and the ensuing scene, depicted sensitively but unflinchingly, effectively depicts the overwhelming sense of doom that accompanies this particular brand of sexual awakening.
This can also be seen in Fresh, Mimi Cave’s uneven but at-times entertaining horror film about a Los Angeles-based woman’s dalliance with a man who — spoiler alert — routinely kidnaps his dates, drugs them, and locks them up until he’s ready to cook them for wealthy individuals who, for whatever reason, view human flesh as a desirable delicacy. Daisy Edgar-Jones plays Noa, whose exasperation with the L.A. dating scene makes her easy prey for her eventual captor Steve (Sebastian Stan, who, like many handsome serial killers before him, has mastered the art of charm).
While certain elements of its story don’t work, Fresh does present a few interesting threads — namely, making Noa an enigma; though she is just one of Steve’s many victims, she is the only one he actually had sex with. Much ado is made about this fact — about why Steve deviated from his usual routine for Noa specifically, and more importantly, about how that experience could be a clue she can use to help aid in her escape. Fresh understands that sex can simultaneously be both dangerous and redemptive. It is Noa’s desire for it — and the intimacy that accompanies it — that pushes her into a potentially life-threatening situation in the first place. But by the end, it becomes the very thing she needs to embrace to save herself.
For decades, Sundance has been known for highlighting the latest and greatest in indie film. With splashier films from more established directors usually waiting to premiere at Venice, Cannes, or Toronto, Sundance has cornered the market on quieter, lower-budget, often more personal fare. That a festival known for these qualities ended up hosting a variety of films about the myriad ways we navigate intimacy and explore our sexuality isn’t exactly shocking. But the sensitivity with which these individual narratives — some of which depict sex celebratorily; others that depict it fraughtly — approach the subject was never guaranteed. Even in those films where sex leads to danger, where sex is more a site for corruption than one for healthy maturation, the desire for intimacy is never treated as anything less than natural and human.
Late into Leo Grande, the titular character, who had spent the majority of the film slyly evading questions about his upbringing, finally opens up to Nancy about a tragic moment in his adolescence, when he was unduly punished for merely trying to express himself sexually. The incident, he goes on to explain, has now reverberated throughout every facet of his life — estranging him from his family, informing his career decisions, influencing his friendships, and impacting his overall outlook on life. Leo’s pride in his line of work — and his clear skill at it — had always been palpable, but his confession near the end of the film provides another reason for why he found such freedom in helping others achieve sexual gratification. In a different film, Leo’s backstory would be used as a source of trauma to explain away a general aversion to sex — after being shamed for acting on a sexual impulse when he was young, it’d be easy to understand why he’d feel uncomfortable in matters of sex later in life.
Thankfully, Leo Grande opts for something more complex, having the young Leo react in the opposite direction, doubling down on his own right to enjoy the carnal, opting to stand in his truth rather than acquiesce to the prude wishes of a society that doesn’t make room for it. It’s a bold but wholly understandable stance for a character as purely earnest as Leo. Devoid of any pretense about the pivotal role intimate relationships have played in his life, he’s been allowed to grow up proudly embracing sex and it all it has to offer. He’s embraced it so much, in fact, that he’s made an enjoyable, honorable career off having it. There’s little wonder that Leo stands out as one of the festival’s most quietly self-assured characters — certainly a new direction than stories about sex work have taken in the past. Leo experiences life with a freedom few are afforded. Unlike his by-the-book on-screen sparring partner, who “likes a list that can be fully ticked off,” Leo bucks at the idea that life needs a list at all. He’d rather tick something else.