Lena Dunham is a controversial creator, even more so since the conclusion of her hit HBO comedy Girls back in 2017. I’ve been a fan of her creative voice from the very first episode of Girls, and I appreciated how well she could write self-involved, self-destructive, myopic characters and her directing instincts as well, all at the age of 25. From her zeitgeist-tapping TV success came Lena Dunham the brand, the industry, and with that her feminist newsletter, book deals, personal appearances, and a perennial case of foot-in-mouth syndrome. It makes it more difficult to carry that fandom when the figure says cringey things like she wished she had had an abortion to better understand the plight of those who have. Some of the early criticisms against Dunham were simply mean-spirited, like gross insults regarding her body and her penchant for nudity on her own TV series, as if women don’t exist who resemble Dunham’s shape. However, with each new public example of bourgeois entitlement, I began to wonder whether Dunham’s satirical skills at sizing up self-involved characters was maybe a little less satirical. I’ve been curious what creative projects Dunham would gravitate to next. Her first was Camping, a short-lived 2018 remake of a British comedy that was cancelled after one season. But aside from producing some more HBO shows, and occasional acting appearances like in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Dunham has been relatively silent. And then in 2022, she had two new movies as writer and director. I thought it would be telling to review them both together, as they share many similarities, and as further insight into Dunham as an artist still exploring her voice.
Sharp Stick was released first, though only a couple months before Catherine Called Birdy. Both movies are coming-of-age comedies about young women finding their place in a world that is all too ready to package them into tidy offerings for male desire. Both movies are about their plucky heroines pushing social boundaries and being exploited by lustful men, but one of these films is far better developed, more charming, and with clear ideas and consistent commentary. In short, watch the delightful Catherine Called Birdy and skip the rather dulled Sharp Stick.
Catherine Called Birdy is based on the 1994 children’s book by Karen Cushman and modeled as a young girl’s diary from thirteenth century England. Catherine (Bella Ramsey) is the only child of the lord of a small village. Her mother (Billie Piper) has suffered five miscarriages or stillborn births, and her spendthrift father (Andrew Scott) is bewildered at what to do with his headstrong daughter. She’s 14 and rejecting her father’s assembly of suitors, as he tries to marry her off and recoup some money to stabilize the family’s looming debt. Catherine narrates her very important year where she starts her period, hides it, and learns about love and life and finding her place.
Right away, I was taken with the sprightly energy and strong personality of our narrator, who would prefer to go by Birdy, thank you very much. We open with her literally slinging mud with the neighborhood kids and laughing and wilding out, enjoying the thrills of being young. The contrast of the movie will hinge upon the distinction of what is childish and what is mature, as these youngin’s are thrust into adult roles because society says that as soon as they can menstruate, they are ready to be married off and become baby factories. Birdy is angry with her mother for continuing to try and have children, especially after the painful recuperation of burying sibling after sibling. She resents the idea of being a mother, and especially so early into a life that still feels bound by the stirrings of being a child. Girls should be allowed to be girls, she demands, and by that she means running around, talking with her friends, and absent the pressures and limitations of adulthood. She’s defiant against the larger Medieval system of valuing women for their fertility. Dunham is smart enough to frame the movie in credible terms. It’s not like Birdy, through her tenacity, is going to overthrow an entire centuries-old system of gender norms, but the story is positioned in more personal terms, in breaking through to her father to see her on her own terms rather than as a convenient investment portfolio. That’s more achievable and will be more gratifying for us because of what winning him over will mean.
The movie is also fast-paced and funny, with Birdy’s casual and catty observations delivered in quick succession. In some ways this reminded me of a Medieval version of 2011’s Submarine, another charming indie coming-of-age movie with an eccentric pop-culture obsessed teenage weirdo. There’s Medieval covers of contemporary pop songs strewn throughout for a youthful energy, and lots of onscreen titles and graphics that have their own jokes. The disconnect between Birdy’s viewpoints of the world and the common ways of thinking provide snarky commentary and plenty of progressive attitude. It’s a constant entertainment to watch this precocious little lady tweak the gender and social norms, riling up buffoonish and fragile male psyches. She’s an upstart, and there’s joy in watching her upset those in power and privilege, though she too is reminded of her own privilege considering she is the daughter of the lord and not merely some dirt-poor peasant. If it wasn’t for the sharp character-focused writing, Ramsey’s performance wouldn’t achieve the same comic and emotional heights.
Ramsey was a supreme scene-stealer on Game of Thrones, so much so that producers turned a one-scene part into a multi-season role, even giving her a badass death scene. Ramsey is the anchor of Catherine Called Birdy and perfectly in tune with her character’s feisty yet limited worldview. She’s such a winning character and represents our more modern worldview chaffing up against the very real reality of Medieval life. In some ways, she’s a case study in having to grow up too soon, and surely not the only woman to have done so. Ramsey is heartfelt and hilarious and headed for stardom (she’ll be co-headlining the HBO Last of Us series along with Pedro Pascal).
Attaching the audience to this character is a rewarding experience, and Dunham as screenwriter has balanced the adaptation of going from a first-person diary-based narrator into a film world where we can get outside viewpoints that complicate and challenge our perceptions. I appreciated the widened scope of the narrative. It’s not just the women who are expected to perform their social duties. Birdy’s beloved older uncle, George (Joe Alwyn), is definitely in love with Birdy’s best friend, but that marriage will not do. He’s expected to marry from an established pecking order to better protect his family. There’s a village boy who is also clearly gay but will never be allowed to marry whom he loves, again emblematic of plenty of people who would be left behind in this system. Sophie Ookonedo (Hotel Rwanda) appears as a widowed noble lady who speaks about the freedoms she enjoys having “played the game” and waiting her turn, speaking to a possibility for Birdy working within a broken system. She’s savvy but graceful, with the hint of sadness just on the outer edges of her words. Birdy’s mother, Lady Aislinn (Piper), is similar, hoping to make the best of limited options, and trying to ready her daughter for a life she knows she will be ill-prepared for. It’s what any parent feels, trying to ease your child for the reality to come while still holding onto their innocence as long as possible. She has some heart-rending moments especially during a difficult childbirth scene, and it’s that moment that really showcases Birdy’s father, Lord Rollo (Scott). Until this point, her father has been frustrated by his impetuous daughter, but it’s this moment where she, and by extension us, see the depth of his caring for his family. It’s wonderfully played by Scott, and it reminds us that even the stooges and fools of this world have their own hidden depth.
Catherine Called Birdy is also something of a Game of Thrones reunion, pairing Ramsey with David Bradley, Dean-Charles Chapman, Paul Kaye, and Ralph Ineson. It’s like Dunham used the HBO series as a quick casting cheat sheet since she’s already seen them in a Medieval setting. Special mention to Russell Brand (Death on the Nile) who also just kills it in one scene as a confused and easily swayed suitor. I would have loved more appearances from this man but having him continually foiled by Birdy and never learning from his gullibility.
Moving onto Sharp Stick, an original story from Dunham, you can see points of similarity immediately, framing the narrative around the self-discovery of Sarah Jo (Kristine Forseth). She’s 26 years old and still a virgin, a point she feels more uncomfortable about because of how open her half-sister Treina (Zola’s Taylour Paige) and mother (Jennifer Jason-Leigh) are about their own sexuality and their many paramours. Sarah Jo has her sights set on Josh (Jon Bernthal), a seemingly kind stay-at-home dad taking care of his special needs son that Sarah Jo babysits. If she’s going to lose her virginity to someone, she wants it to be him, but with this comes consequences as well as a steep learning curve for Sarah Jo on the realities of intimacy.
My issue with Sharp Stick is that it feels far more dawdling and confused about what it wants to say and explore with its brief 86-minute running time. This feels more like a handful of ideas or short story beginnings that Dunham inartly smashed together, and the proceeding movie has moments of levity and insight but is overall too messy and shambling and underdeveloped. Let’s start off with the main character who I would have assumed was a teenager by the way that she was acting. When the script tells me she is 26 years old, I was flabbergasted. She was behaving like a much less mature adult, not to say 26 is the height of maturity or that everyone matures at the same speed. Still, Sarah Jo comes across as very naïve and infantilized about adult relationships and human sexuality, which is confusing considering how open her family is about sex and pleasure. It’s not like she’s growing up in a conservative or repressive environment. She’s literally helping her sister record twerking videos for her social media account. The chief reason I think Dunham made an explicit reason for aging our protagonist 26 was to remove some of the ickier consent issues from coming-of-age stories about inappropriate relationships between underage teens and adults (American Beauty, Towelhead, The Diary of a Teenage Girl). She wanted to preemptively remove those criticisms, and so she made Sarah Jo 26, and she also had her uterus removed, something meant to make her seem more adult, at least on paper. Except this is the most childish 26-year-old I may have ever seen. The problem is that Sarah Jo’s naivete has shackled her character, so her sexual awakening feels more akin to a teenager’s than a mid-twenties adult.
Update: I did some research and discovered that Sarah Jo was originally written to be autistic, which would explain more of her social awkwardness. Dunham reached out to an expert on compassionate representations of autism and physical intimacy but then reportedly cancelled on her. I guess she just decided to make Sarah Jo neurotypical but didn’t change anything else. Needless to say, this was not the best decision and its impact is all over the oblivious sense of naivete that pervades the character and her choices.
I found it hard to take Sarah Jo that seriously as a character, as her education seemed to be obvious and a little too arch and twee in delivery for the rest of the movie. Once she has her sights set on Josh, Sarah Jo looks to Internet pornography to learn about what she may do to better please her partner. She is titillated by watching porn but less from the simple carnal activity and more from her fixation on one very commanding actor, played with nonchalant exuberance by Scott Speedman. Sarah Jo studies the annals of porn and creates a colorful construction-paper-heavy checklist of sexual acts she would like to experiment with, and she even alphabetizes it. It’s stuff like this that paints Sarah Jo as being infantilized. It’s not like we were shown her penchant for arts and crafts or taking larger tasks and breaking them down into cutesy checklists before. She even starts soliciting men online to better help her check things off her list, although this doesn’t come to any danger beyond a few lackluster men not living up to her expectations. And that’s the big takeaway here, that what porn promotes is more fantasy than reality, that actual intimacy between consenting adults is its own very different thing. This is too simple a revelation to rest the entire movie upon wuthout a more in-depth character, which Sarah Jo is not. Again, it’s confusing because this character will seem like she is ignorant to the world of sexuality and yet her family is so direct. The Sarah Jo character feels like she’s been ported from another story about a sheltered wallflower learning about her body and her pleasure versus how she’s been told to act to better turn on men.
I don’t fully understand what the entire storyline with Josh was meant to add up to. He’s her first sexual experience, and while he’s awkward and hesitant, he eventually gives in to this young woman’s ego-stroking infatuation, and then they embark on an affair behind the back of his pregnant wife (played by Dunham). I’m going to go into spoilers to better assess this storyline, so be warned dear reader. He eventually confesses to his wife about the affair and breaks down into tears, apologizing and saying he couldn’t help himself, and the moment is squarely to make us see Josh as a pathetic loser. His tears are performative, and he’s throwing around shifty excuses like that he did it for them. He admonishes himself but it’s not contrition we see but manipulation, meant to provoke forgiveness or at least mitigation of his actions by his wife. That’s when she shakes her head and talks about the many, many other women that Josh had had affairs with, proving that this tryst was not out of character. In fact, this seemingly “good guy” dad is actually a creep. Okay, but then Dunham’s character stays with him and they continue living their lives, obviously with the absence of Sarah Jo now. She even returns to them to yell to Josh that she’s getting much better at sex, like she will win him back as a lover. I suppose Dunham was setting up Sarah Jo’s object of desire being less than her expectations and instead as another scuzzy and coddled man-child. That’s fine. But then why does Sarah Jo still seem so determined to win him back? It’s like she hasn’t learned from this.
There are moments that work in Sharp Stick, little pieces that click together with insight or well-honed character writing. I enjoyed Sarah Jo’s mom going into full monologue mode to describe how she met and fell in love with Treina’s father. When Sarah Jo asks about her own father and her story about meeting him, her mom just shrugs and says her dad was just some guy. The disappointment is palpably felt. I also appreciated that children with special needs are presented in a straightforward and un-stigmatized fashion as just being kids. I thought the conclusion with life advice from Speedman was a great scene-stealing deluge of wisdom from the most unexpected place. I just wish it felt more earned for Sarah Jo and her awkward personal odyssey.
Dunham hasn’t directed a movie since her indie breakout in 2010, Tiny Furniture, and now she has two movies within weeks of one another. Catherine Called Birdy is the much stronger outing, allowing Dunham to adapt her voice and talents into a PG-13-firendly universe while still keeping her sharp wit and attention to character detail. Sharp Stick, in contrast, feels like several ideas that never fully coalesce, and the messy decisions with the main character makes the entire enterprise feel strange and lacking better-earned wisdom from her journey. After six seasons of Girls, I’ll always be intrigued about a new Dunham creative project, but they are not all equal. Catherine Called Birdy is Dunham flying far above the routine criticisms about her writing and her perspective, as well as showing her adaptability in an unfamiliar setting. Sharp Stick, sadly, is a reconfirmation of those criticisms and the sloppy execution of bigger ideas.
Catherine Called Birdy: B+
Sharp Stick: C