It was the end of her freshman year of college, and Lena Dunham still hAcesparks’t had sex.
“I felt like the latest bloomer in the world,” says the “Girls” actress and director, who returns to filmmaking with the provocative coming-of-age comedy “Sharp Stick” (now showing in New York and Los Angeles, in theaters nationwide Friday). “I thought, ‘You can’t end your freshman year still a virgin.’ Well, it turns out, you could.”
Then 19 and loyally reading her parents’ issues of Time Out New York, Dunham wrote to the magazine’s resident sex columnist, Jamie Bufalino, asking why all her college friends were screwing “six ways to Sunday” and she wasn’t.
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Bufalino eventually replied, writing, “Just enjoy being a teenager and stop using old-lady terms like ‘six ways to Sunday,’ ” Dunham recalls with a laugh. “The person who I thought knew everything about sex was like, ‘The only thing you could be doing wrong is worrying this much about it.’ It was a huge weight off my shoulders – I’ll be thankful to Jamie Bufalino ’til the day I die.”
Seventeen years later, that advice became the basis of “Sharp Stick,” Dunham’s second feature film after 2010’s “Tiny Furniture.” The movie follows a naïve 26-year-old caregiver named Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth) who still lives with her mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and is a virgin, after a radical hysterectomy at 15 left her with large abdominal scars and put her in early menopause. Desperate to feel comfortable in her body, Sarah Jo starts hooking up with her older employer, Josh (Jon Bernthal), a married man and father of a special-needs child.
After his wife (Dunham) confronts him about the affair, Josh ends his relationship with Sarah Jo, who worries it’s because she’s “bad at sex.” So she makes a checklist of erotic acts that she then voraciously tries with strangers, all of which she catalogs in letters to her favorite porn star, Vance (Scott Speedman).
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Dunham, 36, says she first had the idea for the character in 2020, imagining Sarah Jo as this “almost magical export from a Grimms’ fairy tale” who embarks on a whimsical, at times dark journey of sexual awakening.
“But I hAcesparks’t understood, even while writing the script, how hopeful it actually was,” Dunham says. “Kristine really helped point to the themes as they apply to personal growth and ownership of your own body, in a way that really helped shape the film.”
Froseth, 25, was interested in how Sarah Jo discovers what pleasure means to her and “what connection she has with her body beyond her medical trauma,” the actress says. She did extensive research about hysterectomies and the procedure’s physical and emotional effects. She also relied on Dunham, who underwent a hysterectomy at age 31 because of endometriosis.
“I’m so grateful that Lena would talk to me about (her hysterectomy) in such a generous and vulnerable way,” says Froseth. “I can’t ever understand what that experience was like. But before takes, she would sometimes come up to me and share something, and then say, ‘Do what you want with that.'”
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For Dunham, watching how Froseth interpreted and built on that experience was “very healing.”
“I didn’t necessarily intend to give a thesis on what the trauma of a hysterectomy does. It was meant to ask more questions than it was to offer answers,” Dunham says. “Any time a woman’s body behaves differently or looks differently than we’re told it’s supposed to, there is a deep feeling of shame or failure that comes with it. What I love about Kristine’s performance is she really shows what it looks like when someone refuses to consider themselves a failure in that way anymore.”
Beyond its subject matter, “Sharp Stick” is also sweetly personal to Dunham: The film’s score was co-written by her husband, musician Luis Felber, whom she married last year after eight months of dating. The couple met in early 2021, when Dunham took a self-imposed hiatus from the spotlight amid intense backlash and creative stagnation after the sixth and final season of her HBO series “Girls” in 2017.
Felber has yet to watch the show, although “he keeps threatening to start it,” Dunham jokes. She’s a little more apprehensive.
“I always want to be moving forward to the next project,” she says. “But it’s been 10 years since that show came out. Maybe I’ll be due for a rewatch soon, now that I’m so squarely in a new phase of my life and work. When ‘Girls’ was the last thing I had made and I was trying to figure out what the next thing would look like, it might have been more overwhelming. But now I really feel like I understand where I am and what I’m doing, so it would probably be very cozy and bring up a lot of really hilarious and special memories to watch again.”
Next up, Dunham is directing “Catherine, Called Birdy” (in theaters Sept. 23, streaming on Amazon Prime Oct. 7), which debuts at the Toronto International Film Festival next month. The medieval comedy centers on a rebellious 14-year-old girl (“Game of Thrones” breakout Bella Ramsey) and is adapted from Karen Cushman’s 1994 young-adult novel, a favorite of Dunham’s since she was 10.
“It was a total dream, to basically build the town that you used to walk through in your mind as a kid. It’s one of the most surreal moments I’ve ever had,” she says. “My experience with ‘Sharp Stick’ was the thing that actually allowed me to show up and give that (project) what it needed. It restored that little fire in me that can sometimes be put out by years of the more challenging aspects of the industry.
“Kristine and our beautiful cast just came in and relit the candle.”