Lena Dunham On Sharp Stick, Her Innocently Provocative New Film
Lena Dunham's Sharp Stick gives a woman the space to explore sex in all its clumsy strangeness.
Lena Dunham has long sought to capture the awkward, often funny intimacy of sex. She did so masterfully with much written about sex scenes in GIRLS that make you shy away not in disgust, but in recognition. In Sharp Stick, her first film in more than a decade, Dunham tells the story of the sexual awakening of a strange, charming 26-year-old virgin in a unlikely hero’s journey that is utterly original and compelling — not because it’s graphic, but because it’s tender.
The film follows Sara Jo (Kristine Froseth), who wears ribbons in her hair, long prairie dresses, and pink knee socks, who lives with her free-spirited mother (played by the always excellent Jennifer Jason Leigh) and wannabe influencer sister Treina (played by the charismatic Taylour Paige). The three form a kind of coven, close-knit and conspiratorial, where they spend long hours with glasses of wine discussing the nature of men and women, self-protection and self-empowerment, and also what a “chode” is.
Sara Jo’s sexual journey begins she initiates an affair with her employer Josh (Jon Bernthal), the father of a special needs child for whom she’s the caretaker. (Dunham plays his high-strung wife, Heather). One night in a laundry room, Sara Jo seduces him with a line given to her by her mother: “Do you find me beautiful?” She lifts her dress to reveal scars on her abdomen: a double hysterectomy due to severe endometriosis she had when she was 14. As a result, her sexuality has been stunted; she had menopause at 17. After the affair goes haywire, she embarks on a mission to carnal genius, consuming as much porn as she can and making a list of sexual acts to try so that nobody will ever leave her again.
“Are those nipples?” she writes in a spiral notebook along with other questions about porn. She constructs a checklist of sex acts she wants to try: with the words ”Eiffel Tower” and “quickie” on a poster board on her baby pink bedroom wall. “How do you get over them so quickly?” Sara Jo asks Treina about men, post-heartbreak. “There’s always another one,” she responds. “And another one. You can literally replace the feeling with an even better one than you expected. Always.”
Sharp Stick isn’t trying to say some radical message about sex or society; what speaks stronger is the space it gives for a young woman to explore herself sexually, in all its clumsy strangeness. She might not know what a blowjob is, but she knows how to figure out what she wants, ask for it, and not accept less.
“It could on one hand, be considered this very sort of sexually provocative thing, but to me, there's a real, innocence about it, too, which was important to me,” Dunham tells NYLON from the floor of her hotel room. “I was just interested in the idea of this character who had this incredibly delayed adolescence and what the impact of that was on her, and also this kind of sped up adolescence, and all of those things kind of hitting up against each other.”
Sharp Stick hits theaters on July 29.
The character of Sarah Jo is unlike anyone I've seen before. I would love to know where she came from and your inspiration for her.
One of the funny things is she's not really like anyone I've seen before either. That was one of those things where I was like, “Where did you come from?” Sometimes a character just starts kind of haunting you and following you around. And if they do it for long enough, you realize that you just gotta roll with it. That's been a really fascinating thing for me: She came into my head and she wouldn't leave, because she kept talking. And I don't want to become a person with an extra person in my head, so I had to get her out. I do think a lot of it was just about the silence of the pandemic and the amount of time that we were all spending by ourselves. uring the height of COVID, pre-vaccinated, I was extremely by myself just because I'm immunocompromised. I was being ultra-careful. So this came out of really being alone, watching some of the movies that had been the most formative for me in terms of deciding to be a filmmaker, a lot of which are sort of these really character driven ’70s films.On a practical level, I also really wanted to create something like when I wrote Tiny Furniture and I was 23 and I was like, "Okay, here's the resources I have, I guess I need to make something that can be shot in my house.” This was very much about making something that could be shot during the pandemic and being able to go back on a set. Four months after I wrote the script, we were on set. It was an amazingly fluid and easy process.
Your last film was 11 years ago. Obviously, your life has changed enormously since then, and so has the world. What made you want to make another film?
You know, I went into this obsessed with making movies and then I had this beautiful diversion to television that taught me everything I know. But I was sort of waiting for the moment that I could sort of return to this first love of movies and see what I had learned, what had changed, and what hadn't changed. I knew I wanted to make another movie, and was about to make the film that I ended up making after Sharp Stick, Catherine Called Birdie. I was about to make it when COVID hit, and it was a feeling of having where every ounce of my energy, and sort of humanity, was being filtered. When that stopped and we didn't know when we'd be able to return to these bigger sets, it really was important to me to write something that could be made on a different scale and constructed differently, so that was some of the intention behind Sharp Stick. It ended up being a really amazing filmmaking experience in and of itself.
This is not a typical losing your virginity story. Why was it important for you to tell a sexual awakening story in this way?
It's funny you say that I was just talking to a close friend of mine and I was inviting her to our premiere in LA with her daughter who’s 17. She’s a nurse that I know who's a pretty observant Christian. I wrote to her and I was like, "I'd love you guys to come to the premiere. The movie does have some sex, but it doesn't have nudity. And I think it's an empowering message. Plus, she doesn't lose her virginity until she's 26." That was how I sold it. I was like, "So I think that you'll feel okay about your kid watching it." And she did. So that was really thrilling because it could on one hand, be considered this very sort of sexually provocative thing, but to me, there's a real, innocence about it, too, which was important to me. I was just interested in the idea of this character who had this incredibly delayed adolescence and what the impact of that was on her. This kind of sped up adolescence, and also this delayed adolescence, and all of those things kind of hitting up against each other.
It's interesting because her adolescence is so delayed, but her mom’s and sister’s aren't. Her mom is so open about sex and it's interesting to have that contrast. It feels really realistic because as a woman, from a young age, people around you are talking about sex.
You’re trying to ask yourself those questions, and you're starting to try to situate yourself, in what is in the idea of normalcy. I was interested in the idea of this character who kind of was really in some ways, incredibly mature, in some ways incredibly sheltered, and sort of what it looked like for her to embark on this process at a time when it was like she waited so long that people almost thought sexuality wasn't a part of her identity or her character. I myself was in many ways a late bloomer, not in the same ways that Sarah Jo was, but like, you know, emotionally. I was very reliant on my parents, and so my experience is folded in there, which is what it always is with the character, that your experiences get folded in, even if on a basic level, you look really different.
I’m curious about why you made her 26. What is it about that age or that time that feels especially interesting?
Well, 26 sort of felt like, you know, old enough that she really had made a choice up to that point to kind of keep herself out of sexual interactions. But at the same time, still young enough that she could engage in the sexual exploration that can be a hallmark of many people's twenties. It’s also an age where, where, Josh, who she has her affair with, wouldn't feel like he was crossing a line that made him predatory, but at the same time, he's not recognizing some of the essential power dynamics of the relationship that they're involved in, and so it's easy for him to explain it to himself a certain way, which I think is so often the case in these dynamics. Even if what's actually happening, has, you know, some of the hallmarks of an imbalanced dynamic.
“I never want to write a male character who feels like they're one note because I've found men to be some of the most complicated and confusing creatures that I've ever known.”
He's such a good character. He feels very real in that he thinks he's such a good guy, but he also thinks he's so pathetic. And no matter what, he puts himself in this almost victim position.
I mean, I think we've all met a lot of guys like that, who sort of offset the fact that they have this inherent power that comes from being a white cis man and they all offset it, like kind of contradicting it by saying they, in some ways, don't have the power that you think that they have. They think that if they announce what sort of bad guy they are, or what a loser they are, that it somehow takes the air out of it, and that their self-awareness is somehow evolved. I think I've met so many men who think that self-awareness is somehow like the magic charm that keeps you from actually being, like, a problematic person. What was amazing was that that was how the character was written, but I think Jon Bernthal is so inherently complex and likable that he was able to sort of take his own likability and twist it on its head. And I loved that. You know, there were a lot of actors who would feel self-conscious about playing “the bad guy” or the loser, and John really embraced those aspects of the character and pushed into them. In the process, you do understand all of the pain and fear that this man is operating with. I never want to write a male character who feels like they're one note because I've found men to be some of the most complicated and confusing creatures that I've ever known. I wanted to make sure that this character held all of that.
One of the things I love the most was just the mother and daughters' dynamic, and the scenes where they're talking about sex, men, or coming-of-age stuff. It felt very conspiratorial, but very vulnerable, too. It reminded me of GIRLS, in the best way. I would love to hear about how you went about creating the relationship between the mother and the daughters.
I think that something that was so interesting to me is how three women can live in the same house and essentially have the same experience, and still be so inherently different and have such completely different senses of how they occupy the world and what people want from them and what they want from people. I love that you have these characters who grew up so close to each other and yet have all sort of splintered off in different directions and that are constantly mirroring each other and trying to define themselves against each other. That has been my experience of being in a family of primarily women and people who are assigned female at birth. Such a big part of my identity has been how I do or don't resemble the women who I'm related to or close to. And then of course, you know, Jennifer and Taylor and Christine came in and formed their own, really beautiful dynamic with each other. What I loved is how totally they leaned into it, even when the relationships are thorny or hard, there's still so much love in them.
So much love. I have a more non-traditional relationship with my mom that feels very much like that, where she's giving you advice about smoking and weed or whatever. I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit too about that, the non-traditional family structure.
Well, It's interesting because I had a mom who was definitely a mom and definitely had like the strictness of a mom, but at the same time is too interesting a person in her own right. Moms are hard, but I think certain moms give their kids more of a sense of their inner life than other moms do, while certain moms pull that back, and my mom never did. I remember I used to say to my mom when I was young, like, "You feel like you're my sister." And she'd say like, "I'm not your sister, I'm your mom, but this is just a way that moms can be." I just was seeing the difference between how she engaged with me and other people's moms did, and I didn't quite know how to classify it. I think that's always the dance that parents are doing is like, “How do you show yourself to your kids?” while remaining appropriate and not demanding too much emotionally of them. I definitely come from the kind of family where like, your aunt will recommend a sexual position to you. You feel grateful that you can have those conversations, and so I was certainly looking at that, and looking at the different ways that people choose to define themselves against their kids.
Is there a specific scene in the film that you're especially proud of, or that you feel encompasses what this film is about?
The really, really long scene in which Sarah Jo loses her virginity, and the many stages of sort of like bargaining and dialogue that they go through as they have that experience, and how much Josh reveals of himself, but pulls back; I think that was so virtuoso on the part of those actors and it's such a pleasure for me to be able to be in that little laundry room with them, doing that with them on a boiling hot day in a December heat wave in the middle of COVID. Every time I watch that scene, I get something new from it, out of their performances, and out of how fully they owned it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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