In her first feature since her 2010 debut, “Tiny Furniture,” Lena Dunham drew from her own medical experiences for her new film,”Sharp Stick,” which premiered at this month’s Sundance film festival.
“The film is about a young woman who is dealing with the trauma of a hysterectomy and illness that she suffered in her teens,” Dunham told TheWrap’s editor-in-chief Sharon Waxman at the virtual Sundance studio, where she was joined by actors Kristine Froseth, Taylour Paige and Jon Bernthal.
Dunham tapped into her experience with endometriosis and her decision to undergo a hysterectomy at 31 for “Sharp Stick,” which she wrote, directed and produced. Making the film was both “an incredibly healing experience” and an “incredibly challenging experience,” she said. In addition to the heady material, she shot the movie during lockdown in just 14 and a half days, harkening back to the “scrappy spirit” of “Tiny Furniture,” which Dunham shot in her parents’ living room in New York City.
Froseth stars as Sarah Jo, a young woman who begins an affair with the father (Bernthal) of a child she babysits and whose own wife (Dunham) is pregnant. Sarah Jo lives at home with her mother (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh — “our patron saint,” as Dunham put it) and her sister Treina (Paige), an aspiring TikTok influencer whose “inner turmoil doesn’t match the glossiness that she’s trying to project,” Dunham explained. “These two girls are sort of different sides of the coin of how women learn to project their sexuality out in society.”
Dunham said she nervously sent the script to Bernthal first. They discussed the movie on her deck over milkshakes (Dunham noted that he turned his down). “It was just clear that we got each other,” she said. Next came the actresses. Froseth connected with the script immediately, but Paige admitted she was initially hesitant. “I asked Lena, like, ‘Why me?’ It could have existed as a white person,” Paige said. “And we tailored it for a Black woman who lives in this family, and she’s adopted.”
Explaining that Treina struggles with questions of identity in an online world that appropriates Black culture, Paige added, “My character doesn’t even realize that while she’s comparing herself to white standards of beauty, the TikTok influencers that she’s inspired by are women who are taking from Black culture.”
As Waxman noted, “Sharp Stick” is one of several films at this year’s festival that deal with a woman’s agency over her own body (see also: “The Janes,” “Call Jane” and “Aftershock“). It’s a complex topic, to be sure, which Dunham and her cast enthusiastically embraced.
As Paige quipped, “We love to get toxic. And messy!”
TheWrap’s Sundance Studio is presented by NFP and National Geographic Documentary Films.