Lena Dunham and Emma Thompson Bring Awkward Sex to Sundance

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Sundance Film Festival
Sundance Film Festival

In her introduction for her Sundance Film Festival premiere, Sharp Stick (done via Zoom and addressed to all of us on our couches; welcome to virtual festing), Lena Dunham called the movie, which she wrote, directed, and filmed during the pandemic, “My most personal project.”

That’s quite a superlative coming from Dunham, whose best-known work has always been inextricable from the creator herself—films and series that are semi-autobiographical… or, at least, through her public image, marketing, and press narratives, carry the illusion of that.

Sharp Stick comes 11 years after her first—and last—feature film, the indie darling Tiny Furniture, which was so personal she cast her mother and best friend to play those roles. And during the course of HBO’s Girls, the media had a hard time delineating where Dunham ended and Hannah Horvath, her Brooklyn millennial dealing with the devastating, if all-too-common, personality cocktail of altruistic and narcissistic, began.

Dunham has always been an open book (she literally wrote one). Given the run of Girls, its post-run reconsideration, and Dunham’s various controversies, she’s remained in the zeitgeist even as she purposefully removed herself from it, and that kind of introduction—”most personal project”—is sure to raise eyebrows.

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In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Dunham essentially said that the film poured out of her during a tumultuous period at the start of the pandemic, after she had contracted COVID-19 herself.

The short logline of Sharp Stick is that it’s the story of a 26-year-old girl named Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth), who had an emergency hysterectomy when she was 15 and therefore didn’t engage in the sexual experimentation her peers did. “I hit menopause at 17,” she announces at a pivotal moment in the film.

But after internalizing, and perhaps misinterpreting, a little too much of the candid sex-and-relationship talk her mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and adopted sister (Zola’s Taylour Paige) freely have in front of her, she takes a cue that she should have sex and that it should be with the father (Jon Bernthal) of the special-needs boy whom she babysits.

(For a bit of insight on the “personal” nature of this, Dunham underwent a hysterectomy in 2018 because of complications related to endometriosis. Around that same time, she and her then-longtime boyfriend, Jack Antonoff, broke up, she and her creative partner Jenni Konner severed ties, and she went to rehab. “It was about trying to understand the impact [my hysterectomy] had on me,” Dunham said. “It was about processing my life. And then, obviously, it becomes about the characters—and not about you at all.”)

What follows is a sexual awakening that is fascinating, if a little strange, to witness. Sarah Jo is 26, but she’s also in the midst of arrested development. Everything from her clothes to her naïveté reads innocent little girl; at one point, we learn that she doesn’t even know what porn is. She’s stuck at a very young 17.

Is it awkward or empowering to watch this sheltered person fumble through a live sexual crash course, mistaking physicality for pleasure with all the ignorance of a middle-schooler, but the bodily autonomy of an adult? That’s where Dunham’s lightning-rod status comes in.

In the hours since Sharp Stick premiered “at” Sundance on Saturday night, every other tweet reacting to it either praised its frank exploration of sexual confusion, complained about the implausibility of Sarah Jo’s excessive lack of sexual knowledge, admired how it managed to inject a certain sweetness and complexity into a babysitter-dad story that’s long been exhausted, or alternatively expressed a lack of patience and appreciation that Dunham and her perspective on sexual relationships—both with others and with one’s self—is back on screen.

The diversity of opinion was an inevitability, and one that Dunham, at least based on that THR article, seems to understand. What was a surprise was the film’s almost direct conversation with the other major premiere of Saturday night.

In the early evening, you could watch Emma Thompson star as a widow cautiously attempting to experience all the sexual activity her long, boring, chaste marriage never afforded her in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande. The titular Leo Grande is an escort. He is played by Daryl McCormack, in a revelatory performance. Readers: He is sensational in every way. A person like him shouldn’t be human, but I’m glad that he is. My god.

Then in the primetime spot, you could screen Dunham’s creation, Sarah Jo, attempting a similar thing: essentially, checking off boxes of sexual acts they feel they need to do in order to feel fully like women, like sexual beings, like they lived. They’re also both terrified and awkward—and often misguided about what they really want—while doing it.

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande unfolds almost like a play. Thompson’s character is first seen nervous, waiting for the young escort she hired to show up. She has spent weeks—months… no, years—considering this. But now that she is an older woman with no husband and grown children, she decides it would be a shame to not have experienced certain sexual acts. She’s never done anything besides missionary with her husband, her only sexual partner. It’s uncomfortable and a bit mortifying, but perhaps paying someone is the best way to do it, especially since she doesn’t want to just sleep with old men. She wants to feel sexually vibrant with someone young.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Emma Thompson and Daryl McCormack in <em>Good Luck to You, Leo Grande</em> by Sophie Hyde, an official selection of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. </p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Sundance Film Festival</div>

Emma Thompson and Daryl McCormack in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande by Sophie Hyde, an official selection of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance Film Festival

The film is essentially a two-hander, in which Thompson and McCormack jockey over what they’re comfortable with, how much they need to know about each other, and, mostly, what it takes to free one’s self from sexual insecurity and shame. There’s an immediate, intimate connection they have that isn’t sexual, except that it is—the deepness with which they relate is more titillating than any attempt at “dirty talk” or “play” ever could be. There are starts and stops. Multiple absolutely nots, fumbled attempts at executing different sex acts, but mostly—and, for them, unexpectedly—a lot of talking about their lives, the personas they wish to create, and how the marriage of those two things, reality and fantasy, might both heal and destroy them.

It is the loveliest movie. Of course it is. It has Emma Thompson dancing between her most charming and most vulnerable personas, her twin acting assassins. It is also, to use the absolutely grotesque word, brave. Actually, no. Delete that. It’s real.

Thompson bares a lot in this role. But that’s secondary to the rawness of it, the willingness to admit how being a mother, a wife, a widow, a professional, and a person who has absorbed an entire life of sexual shame might forgive herself, understand herself, accept herself, and maybe even entertain the idea of having an orgasm.

To be clear, Sharp Stick and Good to Luck to You… are wildly different films. But there is a lot to think about after watching them back to back.

We are a society that is rooted in both judgment and assumption, without recognizing that those two things are in violent opposition to each other. When Sarah Jo makes the determined decision to become a sexual person in Sharp Stick, Bernthal’s character doesn’t shut her down—he’s a typical gross dude, after all—but he is shocked. How could a 26-year-old be a virgin? And Sarah Jo, she feels the only way to make this happen successfully is to be completely open: This is the story of the hysterectomy, and here are my scars. Now, please, will you have sex with me?

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In Good Luck to You… Leo is astonished that Thompson’s character has never had an orgasm. The interesting thing about it, though, is that’s not what concerns her. She’s written that off as an impossibility. She just wants to experience a to-do list of sexual acts. But, it turns out, she experiences what it means to truly know someone, find a fiery emotional connection, and then have that fuel a libido.

It’s another programming coincidence that different ideas about motherhood bleed through both films. In Sharp Stick, “good” and “bad” judgments about mothering, pregnancy, and fertility are themes as essential, if not intertwined, to the ones about sex. It’s everywhere. And in Good Luck to You…, Thompson and McCormack seem to be in a duel attempting to land on the truth about what the other thinks being a mother means, and how one’s relationship to being a mother and being mothered affects a person’s entire existence. Even, God forbid, sexually.

There are superficial comparisons to be made between both films. Both have checklists of different sexual favors to do. Both find protagonists crippled with sexual insecurity, yet determined to overcome it. Both have a fixation on being able to give a blow job.

But more than that, both illustrate how impossible it is to embrace who you are, especially once you introduce sex to the equation. They illustrate the drastic measures that might be required to arrive at that point of enlightenment and satisfaction, and what it means to weather the toxic diversions those measures might take you on. But they are necessary.

It’s also interesting to see, to be meta, the baggage that one brings to both narratives. Take filmmaking out of the equation, and they’re both telling worthwhile, similar stories with similar goals, albeit from characters in different extremes. Yet viewers were ready to be immediately charmed by Emma Thompson, and were. And they were ready to be immediately guarded and skeptical about Lena Dunham, and were.

Those assumptions, those judgments, are as much a part of these films as any of the sex and awakening. Like one, like neither, love both, hate them all: that, at least, is something to consider.

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