Lena Dunham returns to ‘first love,’ debuts ‘meaningful’ sex-positive film ‘Sharp Stick’ at Sundance

More than a decade after her 2010 debut “Tiny Furniture,” writer/director Lena Dunham returns to feature filmmaking with her very personal indie movie “Sharp Stick.”

“This film is about a young woman who can’t have children. I’m a woman who can’t have biological children and I’ve thought a lot about sort of what it means to make your own family and design your own family and how that’s just as meaningful,” said Dunham, the star and creator of HBO’s “Girls,” in a Q&A with her cast after the film’s premiere Saturday night at the virtual Sundance Film Festival.

Part coming-of-age film and part sex comedy, “Sharp Stick” stars Kristine Froseth as kind and wide-eyed 26-year-old Sarah Jo, who works as a special-needs caregiver and lives with her five-time divorcee mom Marilyn (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and wannabe-influencer sister Treina (Taylour Paige). Sarah Jo is also still a virgin, and still wears the scars of a radical hysterectomy at age 15, but is now very eager to lose that label.

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Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth) is eager to lose her virginity to older married man Josh (Jon Bernthal) in "Sharp Stick."

She begins an affair with Josh, the older father of a boy with Down syndrome Sarah Jo works with, and at the same time she’s opened up to the world of online porn, even finding a favorite adult-film actor (Scott Speedman). When her secret relationship suddenly implodes, Sarah Jo becomes adamant about trying out every experience possible when it comes to sex.

"Girls" creator Lena Dunham returns to the movie director's chair with "Sharp Stick," her first feature film in 11 years.

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When coming up with “Sharp Stick,” which Dunham filmed during the pandemic (and whose characters wear masks and live in a COVID-19 world), she said she was ”watching films about how we depict female sexuality on screen and how it’s often so inextricably linked to trauma.”

Dunham, 35, was thinking about “what it would be like to have a character who had sort of been formed by this medical trauma, that it had really created this naive and very specific world view in her,” said the filmmaker, who wrote a 2018 Vogue essay about choosing to have a hysterectomy when she was 31.

In addition to fostering a narrative about body and sex positivity, Dunham wanted “Sharp Stick” to “give porn its due as something that can be really healing. I think we have enough messaging in society – and probably in my 20s, I contributed to it – that said porn is ruining sex and it’s making it so hard for people, but I really wanted this to show the way that porn can liberate people.”

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Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth) is a naive 26-year-old woman who wants to try every sexual experience possible in Lena Dunham's "Sharp Stick."

The new film marks Dunham’s first directorial effort to premiere at Sundance and the plan was to always return to her “first love,” she said. “I had this very lucky and surprising chance to make (‘Girls’) for seven years and I put everything I had into that.” She used COVID as a time “to get my bearing and figure out what I needed to make next” and dug into films that influenced her and the movie’s creation, including “Belle de Jour” with Catherine Deneuve, Barbara Loden’s “Wanda” and “everything Gena Rowlands has ever done.”

Dunham also explained that the title “Sharp Stick” comes from what doctors say in the U.K. to comfort a patient. “That made its way into a monologue of Sarah Jo, about trying to predict pain before it comes in order to dull the effects of it,” said Dunham, who also co-stars in the movie as Josh’s pregnant wife.

“It’s a little aggressively poetic, but I called it that and then I kept planning to change it. This always happens to me: I keep planning to change it and then just don’t and then we’re at Sundance.”