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Sundance 2022: Q&A: Lena Dunham talks sexual liberation, female sexuality in new film ‘Sharp Stick’

Kristine Froseth stars as Sarah Jo in Lena Dunham’s first feature in 11 years, “Sharp Stick.” The film follows Sarah Jo as she has an affair with her married employer and begins to explore her sexuality. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

"Sharp Stick"

Directed by Lena Dunham

FilmNation Entertainment

Jan. 22

By Vivian Xu

Jan. 24, 2022 12:54 p.m.

Lena Dunham is back in the world of feature filmmaking with a film sharp enough to make a mark.

The director’s first feature film in 11 years, “Sharp Stick” debuted in the Premieres category of the Sundance Film Festival. Starring Kristine Froseth as Sarah Jo, a naive woman in her mid-20s who has an illicit affair with her employer, the film examines sexuality and the long-lasting impact of trauma. As Sarah Jo explores her desires independent from the strong personalities of her mother and sister, she learns how to steer her own life.

Dunham spoke with the Daily Bruin’s Vivian Xu and other festival press in a Q&A moderated by Kim Yutani, the director of programming of the festival, about the power of porn and female sexuality on screen, as well as manifesting one’s desires.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Kim Yutani: I’m curious about the character of Sarah Jo. How did you develop her, and where did the idea for her come from?

Lena Dunham: I was asking a lot of questions at the time, watching films about how we depict female sexuality on screen and how it’s often so inextricably linked to trauma. I see some of the trauma in my life, some of it being medical trauma, and what it would be like to have a character who had been formed by this medical trauma. It really created her naive and very specific worldview and then what it’s like when she meets someone who challenges that and cracks it open.

KY: Can you talk about how you arrived at the title (of the film)?

LD: It came from something that doctors sometimes say in the U.K., which is if they give you a shot or take your blood, they’ll say, ‘This is just going to be a sharp scratch or sharp poke or a sharp stick.’ It’s a way to comfort you, and that made its way into a monologue of Sarah Jo’s about trying to predict pain before it comes in order to dull the effects of it. It’s a little aggressively poetic, but I called it that and then I kept planning to change it, and – this always happens to me – then I just don’t and then we’re at Sundance.

KY: I’m curious to hear your thoughts on shaping a more positive light on porn stars and the industry as a whole?

LD: Many of us, especially people who started reading second-wave feminist literature early, were shaped by a kind of feminism that didn’t give porn its due as something that can be really healing for people. We have enough messaging in society – and probably in my 20s I contributed to it – that (says) porn is ruining sex and it’s making it so hard for people.

But I really wanted this (film) to show the way that porn can liberate people. It’s an industry that’s just as complicated as Hollywood and (just) as fast and probably more prolific. It’s really important for us to recognize the very healthy role that (porn) can play, and the very important role that porn actors play in shaping people’s identity.

KY: A lot of people are interested in the ending (which features a pair of hands framing Sarah Jo’s face), if you could say more about that?

LD: It wasn’t simple to end because I didn’t want to see these characters’ journeys end, but it was really important to me that we leave Sarah Jo better than we found her and that we understand that despite the thorniness of what she’s been through, she’s gained a certain strength. The hands that came into the image were an idea that (the cinematographer) had about this surreal image that’s representative of being able to manifest your own desire.

Something that a lot of people experience is not being able to express what they need in any aspect of their life, but sexually, there’s an extra amount of shame around it. We wanted to find a very clear image of this disembodied pair of hands that (represent being) able to create another narrative for herself that’s purely for her.

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Vivian Xu | Daily Bruin senior staff
Xu is a senior staff writer for Arts & Entertainment. She previously served as the Arts editor from 2021-2022, the Music | Fine Arts editor from 2020-2021 and an Arts reporter from 2019-2020. She is a fourth-year neuroscience and anthropology student from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Xu is a senior staff writer for Arts & Entertainment. She previously served as the Arts editor from 2021-2022, the Music | Fine Arts editor from 2020-2021 and an Arts reporter from 2019-2020. She is a fourth-year neuroscience and anthropology student from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
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