Writer/director Lena Dunham makes a welcome return to filmmaking this Sundance with her project “Sharp Stick,” a freewheeling look at a long delayed sexual awakening, compelling from one offbeat scene to the next. That is in part because each scene features a revelatory performance of vulnerability and earnest naïveté from Kristine Froseth, who grounds a character that might seem too much of a stretch—a 26-year-old virgin who doesn’t know what porn is, a blank slate when it comes to sexual experience. But like many pieces to this rich script, it’s a thematic, sincere indulgence that amplifies the film's message and shows Dunham's boldness as a storyteller.
When we see Froseth as Sarah Jo, she is doing a lot of watching. Her sister Treina (Taylour Paige) is filming a TikTok dance to capitalize on her previous viral video. Later on, their mother Marilyn (Jennifer Jason Leigh) talks to the daughters about their “origin stories,” and her five California husbands. Dunham’s storytelling then creates an easy but still gripping rhythm as it juxtaposes this with her work as a caregiver for a young boy named Zack, whose mother (Lena Dunham) is expecting a baby with Josh (Jon Bernthal, in his funniest role yet). The first 20 minutes or so are significant in how they give us these colorful vivid characters, keeping us on our toes, while we too feel more observant.
Sarah Jo’s sexual awakening is ignited when she first seeks Josh's verification that he thinks she is beautiful—the scene is a great volley of emotions, between her earnest vulnerability and his initial hesitation, leading then to his own sexual insecurity. She loses her virginity to him right there on the floor of a laundry room, and it begins not just an affair but an odyssey. "Sharp Stick" imagines what it would be like to collect all of your sexual experiences in a short period of time, while facing what a woman like Sarah Jo must understand about what men want. The journey of this realization is whimsical, distressing, and always emotionally sincere.
Dunham has a special touch with subtle chaos, and there’s a great charm in that we’re never sure how one confidently executed scene is going to end, or what realization Sarah Jo will next have that will cause her to act a certain way. There are so many elements that are blissfully kooky or awkward—the amount of yogurt that Sarah Jo always shovels in her mouth, a porn actor (Scott Speedman, just incredible) who is a compliment master, a baby shower that doesn’t actually mean anything to the narrative—and they all fit vividly in the movie's Todd Solondz-esque universe. Dunham is instead more precious about this sexual awakening, and the message behind it about how sexuality is so powerful, it's just a matter of what you do with it.
As we first meet Sarah Jo, we constantly wonder if she’s going to pull down a zipper from her forehead and reveal her true alien skin. But Froseth has such an earnest grip on the character, and gives her a tangible psychology—her desires and also fears, and her growing understanding of what pleasure matters most. She makes Sarah Jo real. Dunham’s film blossoms into something beautifully strange and brutally honest, sharing its infectious love for Sarah Jo and anyone out there who may feel like her.
A different and just as significant sexual awakening is experienced in one London hotel room, over the course of multiple meetings, in the charming and ambitious comedy “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande.” Directed by Sophie Hyde and written and created by Katy Brand, the film cracks its captivating challenge of presenting two characters in conversation, getting used to each other, dancing around the idea of having sex. That's about the whole film, and it's captivating. Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack, stoic and charismatic) is more than ready to give that experience, but he's been hired by a widower named Nancy (Emma Thompson), who is incredibly trepidatious. Her fear of failing, and of the business in general, threatens to snuff out the tiny inner fire that compelled her in the first place.
Thompson is sensational in a part that relies on her voluminous nervous energy, as she plays this woman who wants to have good sex but still holds onto a more conservative way of thinking about sex work. She is ashamed that she’s ordered Leo Grande, and is, at first, looking for ways that she’ll put her out of her misery and just leave. He remains soothingly calm, informative, non-judgmental—part of the thrill of “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” is in watching her get some type of therapy, and healthy perspective. He reminds her, as a mouthpiece for this movie that is necessary, about how sex work is real work and proud work. It’s heartening to think how this movie positively presents sex workers, while giving both Nancy and Leo Grande a lot of backstory, as teased in the natural course of conversation that is ambitiously executed.
Nancy and Leo meet over the course of multiple meetings, always with a lively push-and-pull chemistry that rarely overplays both of their delicate character constructions. The film is a little stumped in how to later create a significant conflict between the two, and it’s here that it gets a little heavy-handed in their differences, her lack of understanding boundaries, or the movie’s larger mission in educating Nancy more about the sanctity of the business. But it recovers from that part well; its lasting impressions are about the emotional journey it makes possible thanks to the entirely refreshing perspective behind it.
My colleague Brian Tallerico wrote earlier about how this year’s Sundance has been organizing its schedule some certain themes in mind—that’s certainly the case with Saturday's Premieres category, as along with “Sharp Stick” and “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande,” the section also debuted Nina Menkes' "Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power." The film addresses conscious and subconscious sexualization in cinema, and how various bedrock compositions from filmmaking in how we present men and women, are specifically from the male gaze. Menkes connects this with employment discrimination in Hollywood, and the rampant cases of sexual harassment in the industry.
Menkes uses bland footage of her own lecture, given at the CalArts Walt Disney Modular Theater, as the editorial foundation for this documentary, while then showing dozens of film clips to illustrate her points about how the male gaze pervades throughout cinema. It’s not always explosive great film theorizing, but more effective at pointing out ways that women are often filmed, while (very justly) debunking the sanctimony we might have for the celebrated film canon of mostly white male directors. As with any broad analysis about establishing trends, there are a few inclusions that are particularly up for debate, like when she haphazardly includes the car dance scene from the beginning of “Titane” without engaging its context, making it look like just another sexualization moment for anyone who has not yet seen what Julia Ducournau's film is itself trying to say.
"Brainwashed" is nonetheless a great opportunity for many directors and scholars to share their essential perspectives on the medium, and in turn they have faced in the business. It’s valuable to hear Eliza Hittman (“Never Rarely Sometimes Always”) talk about struggling to get an agent after premiering a film at Sundance in 2013, or Joey Soloway ("Transparent") talk about how they have become more conscious of what a camera should convey, and where it should be pointed. Julie Dash talks about her own experience in creating her own cinematic language with “Daughters of the Dust,” while then not receiving the same support as her white male peers when the movie premiered at Sundance.
“Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power” will be completely eye-opening for some, and for others it will at least be a needed reminder to pay closer attention. Either way, “Brainwashed” is bound to make one a better film viewer, and that’s more valuable in this specific case than whether its form can compare to the richness of its ideas. And in terms of Sundance viewers this year, “Brainwashed” will help us value films like “Sharp Stick” and “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” even more.