After a 12-year hiatus from filmmaking following her cinematic breakout Tiny Furniture, Lena Dunham has re-donned her writer/director’s cap for two wildly distinct films, both released this year. The first, Sharp Stick, is about 26-year-old Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth) who underwent a radical hysterectomy during her adolescence, causing a delayed sexual awakening (and subsequent affair with her employer’s husband). The second, an adaptation of Karen Cushman’s 1994 children’s novel, Catherine Called Birdy follows a 14-year-old girl (Bella Ramsey) as she comes of age in 13th century England and attempts to avoid being subjected to a financially-driven arranged marriage. Though Sharp Stick is staunchly adult in its storyline compared to the essential coming-of-age formula Birdy follows, both films are perfect distillations of the filmmaker’s matured artistic musings, particularly when it comes to Dunham’s personal reflections on pregnancy, motherhood and bodily autonomy—facets of her own life that were irrevocably altered after she had a hysterectomy of her own in 2018.
We first meet Catherine (Ramsey) in the midst of a playful afternoon rolling around in the mud, returning home to the gentle scolding of her nanny Morwenna (Lesley Sharp). As the only daughter of Lord Rollo (Andrew Scott) and Lady Aislinn (Billie Piper), there is a looming expectation that Catherine (affectionately dubbed Birdy due to her formidable collection of pet birds) will be wed as soon as she’s crossed the threshold into womanhood with the arrival of her “monthly tithings.” With the family fortune nearly depleted, her father begins to line up prospective suitors, anxious for the financial relief that a generous dowry for a virginal wife would provide. Adamantly opposed to leaving her family and the comfort of her home in “the village of Stonebridge, in the shire of Lincoln, in the country of England, in the hands of God,” Birdy predictably frets when she finally experiences menarche (her first period), opting to hide the bloody rags under the floorboards to keep her parents in the dark. After all, if she theoretically can’t bear children for a husband, she can’t be sold off as a viable wife.
Though Sharp Stick premiered back in January at Sundance, Dunham had been crafting the TIFF-premiering Birdy for far longer, spending a decade vying for the opportunity to adapt Cushman’s novel, which she first read and cherished as a 10-year-old girl. It appeared that her passion project was finally on the brink of being made in 2020—but of course, COVID shut down production on the film just six weeks out from shooting. It was during this hiatus from Birdy that Dunham had the idea for Sharp Stick, writing the script in just one week and shooting the entire film in two. As such, the films are inextricably linked, providing an intriguing thesis on the director’s ever-developing feminist perspective: Becoming increasingly invested in examining the (cis) female reproductive cycle and the societal expectations that are immediately placed on someone who can bear children—as well as the apparent biological transgression of those whose wombs cannot or will not serve this function: A hysterectomy alters Sarah Jo’s sexual self-esteem in Sharp Stick; the prospect of having sex and bearing children deeply repulses Birdy, while her mother Lady Aislinn grapples with multiple stillborn children, her womb seemingly inhospitable.
There are other marked similarities between both films, from Dunham’s heightened focus on casting Black actresses in supporting roles (Taylour Paige as Sarah Jo’s adoptive sister Treina in Sharp Stick, Sophie Okonedo and Mimi Ndiweni as the Black wives of white Lords in Birdy) to the emotional overlap between the two film’s protagonists. Surely the racial politics of Birdy—which falls into “colorblind” casting as opposed to its contemporary successor, “color conscious” casting—will be a topic of scrutiny for those who have long commented upon her consistent oversight when it comes to diversity. However, Birdy feels comparatively thoughtful in this regard, the overall omission of racial politicking a welcome respite from a filmmaker who consistently puts her foot in her mouth.
As far as Sarah Jo and Birdy are concerned, they feel like fated complements: On a surface level, they both sport long, mousy brown locks of hair and extended anxieties surrounding their functions (and “purposes”) as women undergoing sexual awakenings. Of course, Sarah Jo’s trajectory is messy and explicit, while Birdy’s feels like a natural tension that a large swath of people can genuinely relate to. Though Sharp Stick remains a divisively audacious film, there’s no denying that Dunham’s experience in crafting it provided a newfound perspective for Birdy after COVID restrictions lifted and filming finally commenced in 2021. “Sharp Stick would never exist if I hadn’t been trying to make Birdy for 10 years,” Dunham told me in an interview coinciding with the release of the former. “And Birdy wouldn’t be the movie it is if I hadn’t gotten to make Sharp Stick two and a half months before.”
The tone of Birdy is perfectly congruous with Dunham’s established comedic sensibility, a testament to her overarching prowess as a writer. She carefully imbues Cushman’s original story with her own observational slant, deftly handling fart jokes and naïve assumptions of the birds and the bees without ever tipping over into unnecessary crudeness. As a creative who has unabashedly explored the ickier side of (oft-sexual) human connection, it’s heartening to see her nurture a precocious childlike sensibility as opposed to languishing amid spoiled, stunted adults.
If Catherine Called Birdy falters at any point, it’s during the film’s conclusion. Though Dunham took various liberties in adapting Cushman’s novel, her altered ending feels almost inappropriate in the context of the original work’s historical commentary. Birdy’s fate in the film is much less steeped in Medieval reality, which is ultimately a disservice to Cushman’s carefully researched, authentic assessment of the era. Furthermore, the adoption of a flatly girlboss resolution undercuts the film’s feminist potential, unable to reconcile hopeful girlhood fantasies with the soul-crushing devastation of living in a misogynistic reality. Perhaps this culmination is Dunham’s attempt to distance herself from the bleakly repellant humor that made her career, choosing instead to make room for one girl’s unlikely triumph against odds stacked against her. While that might seem broadly appealing and a surefire way to instill a sense of righteous satisfaction among young viewers, it also robs them of the fascinating context that Cushman originally provided—that teenage girls in the 1390s and 1990s had vastly different daily experiences, but woefully similar positions in a persevering patriarchal society. By lightening this blow with an inflated fairytale ending, Dunham avoids grappling with a harsh truth that she would have otherwise been well-suited to navigate.
Director: Lena Dunham
Writer: Lena Dunham
Stars: Bella Ramsey, Andrew Scott, Billie Piper, Joe Alwyn, Dean-Charles Chapman, Ralph Ineson, Russell Brand
Release Date: September 23, 2022 (Amazon)
Natalia Keogan is Filmmaker Magazine’s web editor, and regularly contributes freelance film reviews here at Paste. Her writing has also appeared in Blood Knife Magazine, SlashFilm and Daily Grindhouse, among others. She lives in Queens with her large orange cat. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan