Over a decade ago, when Lena Dunham was in her early 20s, she wrote and directed “Tiny Furniture,” a confident portrait of post-college malaise. The film was a pseudo-mumblecore exercise made on a shoestring budget starring her real family and friends. Dunham played a whiny, listless recent graduate who in one of the most memorable scenes engages in rough sex with an acquaintance inside a construction pipe. Even then, she was unafraid to capture coitus in all its nauseous glory.
Dunham’s newest film, “Sharp Stick,” declines to use the same gritty, unflattering filter on its picture of young womanhood — yet this peculiar, fickle, floaty coming-of-age story is guided by the same intuition about the mysteries of female desire.
The heroine of “Sharp Stick” is a foil to the unruly women Dunham usually spotlights. Diverging from Aura of “Tiny Furniture” and Hannah of “Girls” (both played by Dunham), Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth) is a protagonist so breezy and ingenuous she might as well be a baby bird alighting from the nest for the first time.
Sarah Jo’s particular roost is a ruffly Los Angeles duplex where she lives alongside her flighty mother, Marilyn (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and lovelorn older sister, Treina (Taylour Paige), both of whom share a taste for gossip and affairs in love and lust. Near the beginning of the movie, Marilyn, once a starlet and ever an idealist, wistfully recounts a series of entanglements with men, including the one that resulted in Sarah Jo. (She calls it Sarah Jo’s “origin story.”) Rapt by the adventures, Sarah Jo hangs on every word.
As characters, neither Marilyn nor Treina feels wrung from life. Perennially draped on furniture items or the limbs of one another, they laze about their condo dreamily, less people than indolence incarnate. Sarah Jo is also flattened, and Froseth plays her as an obtuse, mannered Lolita, all wide eyes and toothy smiles. Unlike Treina, an aspiring influencer who curates a coy online persona, Sarah Jo suggests an almost anachronistic quaintness: Twenty-six and still a virgin, she wears her long hair pulled back by headbands and dons smocks fit for a colonial housewife.
When she’s not acting as videographer for Treina’s social media, Sarah Jo works as a nanny for Zach (Liam Michel Saux), who has Down syndrome. Her employers are Zach’s mother, Heather (Dunham), a workaholic real estate agent in her third trimester of pregnancy, and Zach’s dad, Josh (Jon Bernthal), warm but scuzzy and without a job. As Sarah Jo observes Josh loaf around the house, she nurses a schoolgirl’s crush that grows into a plea for him to take her virginity. Josh demurs, but only for a moment.
The illicit liaison that ensues between them occupies the first half of “Sharp Stick,” and the movie is at its strongest when navigating their role-playing. Sarah Jo’s motive, like her character, is simple. In Josh, she sees a path to becoming a sexual sophisticate. The gaze is more complicated in reverse. Unkempt and unambitious, Josh might never have made the first move on Sarah Jo, but he seizes her come-on as an opportunity to enact his own fantasies of worth. With her, Josh sheds his loser facade and embodies the sage erotic tutor, the amorous white knight.
But once their affair becomes a fiasco, the movie takes a hard left turn. Confused and lonely, Sarah Jo vows to become a sexual autodidact, and begins making her way down an alphabetized catalog of sex acts with the help of the Web and a rainbow-colored checklist she displays on her bedroom wall. A montage of one-night stands follow, with the focus never straying from Sarah Jo’s pursuit of pleasure.
This section of the film unspools as a cathartic, mythical tale of sexual awakening, utterly divorced from the terrestrial safety concerns Sarah Jo’s project would inevitably provoke. Dunham didn’t design this part of the movie to hew to life (you wouldn’t want to try this at home), and she is deliberate in maintaining an aloofness from the demands of reality. At one point, as Sarah Jo uses her faculties of imagination to reach orgasm, Dunham departs from live action altogether and uses graceful line-drawn illustrations of a woman’s body tangled in ecstasy.
“Sharp Stick” doesn’t gel as a whole — it drifts in narrative and tone, and one can’t help but feel jarred by how far Sarah Jo’s sexual odyssey strays from the power dynamics that underpin her dalliance with Josh. Sarah Jo is a slippery protagonist, an oddball, and an enigma.
But perhaps tucked within her pure, dovelike disposition is a message about the ways women’s desire can be flattened or overlooked. If the movie initially positions Sarah Jo as a puppet for Josh’s delusions of romantic grandeur, it eventually unlooses the naif from her marionette strings, enabling her to pursue her own fantasies freely.
Directed by Lena Dunham. Written by Dunham. Starring Kristine Froseth, Jon Bernthal, Luka Sabbat, Dunham, Taylour Paige, Jennifer Jason Leigh. At Kendall Square. 86 minutes. Rated R (for sexual encounters, the good, the bad, and the ugly).