Underrated/Overlooked: Sarah Elizabeth Mintz on Sharp Stick

Good Girl Jane writer-director Sarah Elizabeth Mintz reclaims Lena Dunham’s unfairly maligned portrait of burgeoning female sexuality.

This past August, I took my 70-year-old mother with me to the Quad Cinema to see Sharp Stick, Lena Dunham’s new sex comedy starring Kristine Froseth as a naive 26-year-old who, after having her heart broken by a much older married man, embarks on a journey of sexual discovery. To be honest, I’d heard relatively mixed things about the film after its premiere at Sundance, but I was undeterred, as Lena Dunham’s work has been historically divisive. That wasn’t news. And not only have I personally often resonated with her voice, but as a young woman who also tackles female sexuality onscreen, I feel a sort of kindred amusement at how this content agitates certain viewers.

At the end of the day, horniness remains taboo. Sex work remains taboo … porn, masturbation, infidelity, mixed-race adoption, reproductive surgery, bad sex, female fantasy, abortion. These things are all taboo. But not for Lena Dunham. And as anyone who has lived through the Girls era can attest, the idea that sex sells may still be “king,” but only if that sex is presented in a particular and palatable way.

Jon Bernthal and Kristine Froseth in Sharp Stick.

The primary critique I’ve encountered regarding Sharp Stick is that the characters, specifically Sara Jo, are “lost” or making immoral choices. But why don’t we let her do that? Sometimes life looks a bit fucked up. Plenty of people are lost. Sex, love and the search for intimacy can be treacherous journeys, especially when, like Sarah Jo, you’ve been raised without a father figure. I hate to use the word “brave” to describe Dunham’s work – as it inherently reminds us that, even today, honestly tackling women’s sexuality remains somewhat dangerous and intimidating territory – but Sharp Stick is plainly brave, as it does just that. The film does not apologize or shy away from Sara Jo’s sexual desires, curiosities or “deviances,” it simply allows them to exist, as they do for many young women.

Sara Jo is raised by and still lives with her jade-rolling, pot-smoking single mother, Marilyn (Jennifer Jason Leigh), but despite her mother’s sexual candidness, Sara Jo is desperately clueless about the birds and bees. After an informative and distinctly pleasurable but ultimately disastrous affair with her man-child boss (Jon Bernthal, the real standout here, if you ask me), Sara Jo seeks to become “good at sex,” once and for all. Hers may be an imperfect plan, but it’s not without direction.

As Sara Jo’s quest unfolds, each member of the cast bands together under such a bright, clear and cohesive vision, taking this cinematic leap wholeheartedly together and without fear. The performances showcased are undeniably stellar. We have Kristine Froseth as the inexperienced but insatiable Sara Jo. A transcendent Scott Speedman as feminist porn star Vance Leroy. Luka Sabbat as the deliciously genuine Arvin, Sara Jo’s unexpected knight. Taylor Page as the magnetic and sensitive Treina, her Tik- Tok-viral adopted sister. And Jennifer Jason Leigh commits entirely to her L.A.-specific, incense-burning mom, Marilyn. Lena herself is comical and complex as the pregnant Heather, who is simultaneously ambitious and emotional, maternal and scared, strong and vulnerable. Everyone on the roster is a real mess and I love it, because everyone is, in fact, a mess. You know? What remains so crucially important about Dunham’s work is that she allows her characters to be painfully complicated, while she stunningly withholds judgment. Lena gifts us with full “real people” onscreen. People who make mistakes — a lot of them — but are not judged as “bad.”

Kristine Froseth and Jon Bernthal in Sharp Stick.

Lena’s specific and loving gaze makes itself evident toward the middle of the film, when Josh’s friend and bar-owner hound, Yuli (played with exquisite ease by a charming, yet repugnant, Ebon Moss-Bachrach), fails to recognize Sara Jo when she visits him at his bar. Froseth is the picture of Lolita-esque youth – beauty, wide-eyed, open-mouthed seduction – and it is admittedly hard to believe that Yuli would not have clocked her sooner, if not immediately. However, I reframed my initial eye-roll reaction to this encounter and took something new from the sensation. I realized I was letting my own bias lead (!). My conditioned belief that youth and beauty are everything to everybody, all the time, was clouding my judgment here. I felt this moment differently on second viewing. I see it now as a refreshing indication of Lena’s specific open mindedness and earnest belief in the varying shapes of human beauty, rather than a blind spot in her writing. Admittedly, it’s kind of fun to see a filmmaker approach a young woman that looks like Kristine and almost ignore her innate appeal. Lena approaches her as she does any of her characters. There is no preferential treatment for youth, beauty or conventional sex standards in Lena’s work (and that can at times be a jarring lens to suddenly look through) — but hallelujah, for Lena, it’s humanity that remains the holy grail.

I’d be remiss if I failed to note the delightful illustrations of sex and the female form woven into key moments in this film. These segments were a welcome callback for me to the coming-of-age dramas of the early aughts, like The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys and Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and later The Diary of a Teenage Girl. There’s a lot more to say on this pattern, but I’ll keep it simple. I don’t usually engage with cartoons and sometimes I find these animated interruptions almost distracting, but even when I do, I’m reminded of how wonderfully different and yet similar we all are. These drawings don’t look like just “Sara Jo”… They look like … people. They remove the specifics and judgments and they bring us back together as one — sexual beings, no shame about it.

Much to my horror, my mother approached Lena on the sidewalk outside the Quad after the screening, and with damp eyes, told her how much she wished Sharp Stick (and more specifically, Lena’s voice) had existed when she was younger. My mother wondered out loud what that brave voice might have done to help shape her ideas of sex and the shame that came with it. Lena asked my mother if it would be OK if they hugged. Lena and my mother hugged, and then she and I hugged too. All of us brought closer together by admitting our natural shame, chaos and messiness.

So, I love this movie, and furthermore, I love that it’s a bit hard to swallow. If you know what I mean.

Sarah Elizabeth Mintz is a writer/director working in New York and Los Angeles. She received her BFA from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where she completed her thesis film Transit, starring Dakota Johnson. After graduating she assisted filmmakers Alejandro Iñárritu on The Revenant, Joachim Trier on Louder Than Bombs, and Cary Fukunaga on True Detective. Sarah was a Sundance Fellow in the 2017 Writer’s Intensive with her feature Good Girl Jane. She directed a proof-of-concept short film of the same name, which garnered interest and financing for the feature. Good Girl Jane recently premiered in U.S. Narrative Competition at Tribeca Film Festival 2022 and won the Founders Award for Best U.S. Narrative Feature as well as Best Performance in a Narrative Feature for Rain Spencer. The film is written by Mintz and is inspired by events in her own life. Sarah is interested in stories that explore the complexities of human nature and the beauty that lies in gray areas that are often overlooked.