Has Lena Dunham moved past her discomfort zone with ‘Sharp Stick’?

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In the 2017 series finale of her polarizing, paradigm-shifting HBO series “Girls” — the story of hipster Brooklynites trying and often failing to make their own scene — Lena Dunham threw viewers a curveball, plunging her immature alter ego, Hannah Horvath, into the maelstrom of motherhood. It was a twist that came out of nowhere, narratively speaking, but also made sense on a larger conceptual level. In the show’s pilot, Hannah, an aspiring writer voraciously sucking up life experiences as potential literary fuel, had told her skeptical parents that she had big things in store: “I think that I might be the voice of my generation,” she insisted. In the end, however, that voice stifled itself; as the show wound to a close, we saw something unexpectedly moving — a character chronically unwilling to let anybody else get a word in edgewise silently contemplating what it means to have another mouth to feed.

Perhaps kidding her own former-voice-of-a-generation status, the 36-year-old Dunham has cast herself as a bedraggled mom in her controversial new comedy “Sharp Stick.” It’s hardly a starring role: in her first scene, the writer-director places herself far away from the camera, speaking in hushed tones that make it hard to recognize her at all. Dunham’s character, Heather, is an overworked mom who agonizes performatively over leaving her autistic, pre-teen son to hang with her frat-boyish house husband Josh (Jon Bernthal) and 20-something nanny Sarah Jo (Krtistine Froseth). As it turns out, Heather has reason to worry, but not about her kid. No sooner has Sarah Jo proven herself indispensable as a caregiver than she and Josh are engaging in a torrid, secretive sexual relationship.

There is a long line of stories of men taking up with the nanny, from the fictional (1994’s “The Babysitter, about a nubile homewrecker with a fatal attraction to a suburban dad) to the real (Jude Law, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the unnamed journalist in Leah McLaren’s memoir). Based simply on that plot description, “Sharp Stick” could be a cheesy ’90s erotic thriller. But Sarah Jo isn’t a femme fatale or a Lolita. Rather, she’s a sheltered, almost childlike figure who’s made it to young adulthood without even a middle-school grasp on eroticism or sex. As such, she views her tentative, passionate couplings with Josh as a kind of fact-finding mission, until inevitably deeper feelings creep in and everybody under the family’s roof is in danger of getting seriously bruised.

That “Sharp Stick” doesn’t quite go where you’d expect from there is both a bug and a feature — and very much in keeping with Dunham’s style, which usually finds a way to confound expectations. When the film premiered earlier this year at Sundance, critics were split on the question of basic credibility: the mystery of how a character living in 21st-century Silver Lake, Calif. — as opposed to a monastery, or a Luddite bubble — could have zero knowledge of internet porn. The film was criticized on Twitter by an autism activist who said she had been approached by the production to be a consultant, but Dunham’s producers replied that Sarah Jo was never meant to be on the spectrum. Instead, the revelation that the character underwent a life-saving hysterectomy in adolescence — and is self-conscious about her scars — duly contextualizes her late-bloomer status. This history also binds her unmistakably to Dunham, who underwent a similar procedure herself in 2018 after being diagnosed with endometriosis.

It’s a fine line between autobiography and oversharing, and Dunham, who’s been dogged with charges of indulging a privileged narcissism since her intricately funny 2010 directorial debut “Tiny Furniture,” walks it with her own idiosyncratic fearlessness. The generational subtext of Dunham’s debut was that her post-collegiate character Audra was an aimless mooch stuck between bemoaning and revelling in her own lack of focus; in a bold autofictional conceit, Dunham cast herself opposite her real-life mother, the prominent photographer Laurie Simmons. Similarly unmoored millennial types proliferated in “Girls,” which not only dared to make Hannah and her pals consistently unlikeable but kept doling out social comeuppances like paper-cuts; a scene where Alison Williams’ earnest aspiring folk singer Marnie covers Kanye West’s “Stronger” karaoke style is more creepily terrifying than any A24 horror movie.

Embarrassment is Dunham’s sweet spot, and for audiences used to clean, concise character arcs, her insistence on depicting unflattering contradictions — like Aura and Hannah’s blend of ambition and passivity, or Sarah Jo’s mix of desire and naiveté — can be alienating. They’re also the best evidence of her particular gift. In the most famous episode of “Girls, season two’s “One Man’s Trash” (directed by Dunham herself), Hannah finds herself hanging around longer than she’d planned with an older one-night stand (wonderfully played by Patrick Wilson). His prosperous, grown-up lifestyle brings out Hannah’s aspirational side as well as her reflexive, contempt; as she petulantly overstays her welcome, it’s as if the character were simultaneously rehearsing and rejecting a conventional domestic destiny: playing house as a high-stakes game of chicken.

The cringe-inducing gamesmanship of “One Man’s Trash” gets expanded in “Sharp Stick, which shifts in the home stretch into an erotic odyssey akin to Lars Von Trier’s scandalous 2014 melodrama “Nymphomaniac,” in which Charlotte Gainsbourg’s title character experimented compulsively and self-destructively with sex-as-self-actualization. Where Von Trier took sadistic pleasure in humiliating and abusing his lead through her adventures, Dunham treats Sarah Jo’s own (literal) coming-of-age mission with an affectionate, respectful skepticism. The character’s cheerfully alphabetized list of potential stances and sexual positions to try out (example: “L for Lesbian”) suggests a benign form of homework; the inventory could be taken as a joke on Dunham’s own determinedly taboo-pushing body of work.

A case can be made that Dunham sometimes engages in daring for its own sake, and also that she’s working with one eye on her critics: when “Atlanta” creator Donald Glover guest-starred on “Girls” as Hannah’s “Black Republican” boyfriend, it felt like a sop to reviewers who’d prodded the show’s lily-white insularity. That Sarah Jo’s adoptive sister in “Sharp Stick” is an African-American Instagram influencer named Treina (played by Taylour Paige of “Zola”) would seem to be one provocation too many, except that the sequence in which the siblings ask their mother to recount their respective “origin stories” is also the tenderest and most humane moment in the film, perched, again, on the fault line between intimacy and TMI. What seemed possibly callow in the maternal pathos play “Tiny Furniture” has, perhaps evolved or at least deepened: if what Dunham is doing is shtick, it’s grown more refined.

This fall, Dunham is set to premiere at TIFF with another apparent curveball: the 13th-century period drama “Catherine Birdy,” about a pre-teen girl trying to avoid being married off by her cash-strapped parents. As the director’s first movie set outside of the here and now, it sounds like a stretch, and maybe a way to move outside of her usual discomfort zone: or maybe expand its borders to a bigger audience.

Adam Nayman is a critic, lecturer and author based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @brofromanother

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