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Lena Dunham Is Back in Her Comfort Zone As a Movie Director

The newly-released ‘Catherine Called Birdy’ and ‘Sharp Stick’ offer an extended look at what Dunham’s post-’Girls’ career will look like

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There’s a lot that separates the protagonists of Catherine Called Birdy and Sharp Stick. Birdy (Bella Ramsey) is a 14-year-old girl in 13th century England; Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth) is a 26-year-old woman in contemporary Los Angeles. Birdy’s favorite pastimes include frolicking in pig shit; Sarah Jo is the sweet, responsible caretaker for a child with special needs. Birdy thinks her period comes out of her butt; Sarah Jo writes a sexual to-do list in alphabetical order. Birdy fronts a children’s movie from a major streaming service; Sarah Jo stars in a micro-budget indie.

But there’s plenty that unites these characters, too. At their stories’ outset, both Birdy and Sarah Jo are naive, inexperienced young women on the cusp of a major change in their lives. Both reach milestones intrinsically tied to sex, desire, and the possiblity—or lack thereof—of having children. Both live in either the lead-up to or aftermath of major pandemics. And both are the protagonists of movies written and directed by Lena Dunham, who has now released two feature films in the span of a year.

In the five years since the conclusion of Girls, and the decade-plus since its launch, Dunham hasn’t exactly been on hiatus. First, she cocreated Camping, a poorly received miniseries that shortly precipitated her official split from creative partner Jenni Konner. She then produced Genera+ion, the since-canceled series about queer California teens, and directed the pilot of finance drama Industry. She also cohosts a podcast, The C-Word, dedicated to vilified women through history. None of these projects, however, centered Dunham as completely as the six-season show she starred in, nor have any reached Girls level of cultural ubiquity. (Both Genera+ion and Camping have been scrubbed from HBO Max as part of cost-cutting measures after a corporate merger; Industry has its vocal fans, but is still waiting on a renewal for a third season.)

If Girls introduced its star to a mass audience, one that continues to mine the show for TikTok memes and pithy one-liners, Dunham has yet to re-introduce her post-Girls self on a similar scale. The wait is understandable. Artists in general are entitled to take their time; Dunham in specific has gone through significant life changes, from parting ways with Konner to getting married to a series of health issues she’s shared in interviews, including a hysterectomy to treat chronic endometriosis. One can grasp why Dunham would be in no hurry to invite the scrutiny that came with seizing the zeitgeist.

Before there was Girls, though, there was Tiny Furniture, the prizewinning film that caught HBO’s eye in the first place. Tiny Furniture introduced many of Dunham’s now-signatures: coming-of-age stories centered on young women; an autofictional ellison of herself and her characters; a willingness to showcase the ugly, unsavory side of her protagonists, bucking all expectations of propriety. Movies represent a homecoming of sorts for Dunham, who got her start in the medium before decamping for prestige TV—a climate slightly more favorable to original stories aimed at adults.

Even while Girls was still on, there were indications that Dunham was operating outside her true comfort zone. Girls is best remembered for its standalone concept episodes: the lost weekend of “One Man’s Trash”; the platonic implosion of “Beach House”; the sharp two-hander “American Bitch.” The show was less adept at the long-term storytelling that marks multiseason TV. Characters like Allison Williams’s Marnie could be unrecognizable from one season to the next; plot developments, including Hannah’s series-ending pregnancy from a casual hookup, often came out of left field. These weren’t fatal flaws, but they did indicate Dunham’s strengths and interests lay beyond the small screen.

With Sharp Stick and Catherine Called Birdy, Dunham finally offers an extended look at what her post-Girls career will look like. As back-to-back releases, the two movies provide both a show of range and evidence of an evolved artistic signature. Dunham acts in Sharp Stick, as the mother of Sarah Jo’s client and the wife of the man she starts an affair with. But her role in both projects is primarily behind the camera, a shift that may allow some skeptics to separate their feelings about Dunham from their feelings about her work, and to separate the writer-director from the fictional personae she creates.

Sharp Stick is a pandemic film, both in the text of the story—it’s the kind of movie in which characters casually wear masks and never explain why—and the circumstances of its production. Conceived and shot under quarantine, Sharp Stick features few locations, no crowds, and a small cast. Such a narrow scope allows Dunham to tell an almost fable-like story, one that feels slightly detached from the real-life rhythms of a place like L.A. We don’t get a full explanation for why Sarah Jo, a virgin utterly unschooled in the ways of the world, turned out so differently from her mother, a many-times-over divorcée, and her sister, an aspiring influencer.

Nor do we need one: this is a quasi-allegorical tale of one woman’s sexual awakening, kick-started by a dalliance with her boss and freed from the usual threats to a woman in Sarah Jo’s position. Like Dunham, Sarah Jo has had a hysterectomy, divorcing her sex life from the possibility of pregnancy. And while her employer is hardly a good guy, Sarah Jo is clearly the aggressor, continuing her quest for satisfaction undaunted even after the relationship goes up in flames. In the meantime, Dunham makes better use of Jon Bernthal’s sex appeal than any filmmaker he’s worked with thus far, including the creators of the new American Gigolo.

Even as Sharp Stick deals with extremely adult material, it adopts a purposeful innocence that makes Dunham’s latest work less counterintuitive than it might seem. Dunham optioned Catherine Called Birdy, a 1994 novel formatted as the diary of a girl whose father wants to auction her off for marriage, while still working on Girls. Catherine Called Birdy is about a child, but a child on the cusp of adulthood—one who closely observes her father’s flaws (he’s introduced as “usually drunk”) and her mother’s miscarriages, then understands their implications. When she hits puberty, Birdy hides her menstrual pads because she knows the burdens that come with biological maturity.

Catherine Called Birdy is a funny, exuberant film, one that indulges Dunham’s obvious love for transgression while presenting as the kind of accessible fare one can stream on Amazon Prime Video. The soundtrack is contemporary, including a Mazzy Star cover, and the production design is bright and colorful. The effect is not ironic or snarky, like other period pieces that make heavy use of anachronism. Instead, they make Birdy’s resistance to ladylike behavior part of an eternal struggle that pits unruliness against etiquette, and girls’ individuality against the homogenizing force of patriarchy.

On their own, Sharp Stick and Catherine Called Birdy each establish Dunham as a continued creative force. Together, they show an auteur equally capable of stewarding a spiky, strange parable and sublimating that strangeness into a joyous studio production. The clamor around Girls could get too deafening for its own good. With some distance, both Dunham and her audience are finally moving forward on their own terms.