Writer/director Theda Hammel’s newest Sundance feature, Stress Positions is a sharp and layered satire about love in the time of the pandemic. The film stars John Early as Terry, a recent mid-divorcee who essentially
squats quarantines in his soon-to-be ex-husband’s Brooklyn brownstone dubbed “The Party House” for reasons Terry would like to forget. He also plays host to his injured model Moroccan cousin “Bahlul” (Qaher Harhash).
Stress Positions masquerades as a COVID comedy, but underneath the send-up of elder millennial hipster gentrifiers, the film offers an introspective look at the intersectionality of queerness and tolerance. Karla (Hammel) lives with her girlfriend, Vanessa (Amy Zimmer), a self-described “Larchmont Jew.” Vanessa works as an author but lacks originality, as she used Karla’s life to inform her novel (whether she’ll admit it or not). On the surface, Karla is fairly nonplussed but appears to vent her frustrations in other provocative ways.
We learn that Terry is pretty susceptible to post-war conservative propaganda via YouTube while also holding a fervent belief in COVID and social distancing. As a character, he is an interesting ball of contradictions and vacillates between needing protection and overwhelming those around him. He feels responsible for Bahlul and their eccentric upstairs neighbor Coco (Rebecca F. Wright). He lives in a constant state of panic, whether it’s gearing up to safely get the Grubhub delivery, attending to Bahlul, clanging pans for the essential workers, or trying his best not to die as he constantly falls into calamity.
The group all gathers for the 4th of July and Bahlul’s birthday. Bahlul wants to be a writer, and after an inspirational talk with Karla, he becomes obsessed with creating his own stories from experience and not imagination. Karla and Terry serve as opposites in their impressions of Bahlul. Bahlul views Karla as a mini savior, someone who encourages him to do whatever he wants and experience the world as his own. He views Terry as pathetic and cold, regardless of the literal blood, sweat and tears he’s shed over the boy.
Also enter the mischief-maker Ronald (Faheem Ali), a Grubhub delivery boy who both causes and steps into chaos, and Leo (John Roberts), who definitely wants to divorce Terry. He also wants to rub his face in it, and show off his new boyfriend Hamadou (Davidson Obennebo). It’s a group of people you wouldn’t think would go together, and honestly, they don’t. In a community of found family, sometimes people find connection out of convenience rather than connection.
The lesson or point of this film is more visceral than actual. Viewers have a feeling at the end that thye've understood what they've seen, but will have a hard time articulating it. When the film opens, Karla performs a “healing” on a friend, which is a nice bit of irony given that people use stress positions often for torture and to cause pain – a possibly inadvertent effect of Karla’s effort.
Terry’s existence sort of becomes his own stress position. The movie doesn't provide much background on him, just a third-hand account courtesy of Bahlul’s memories of his mother’s dislike of Terry. Viewers will assume that somewhere along the way, something went wrong, but maybe this is how he’s always been.
John Early inhabits this role beautifully. As an actor he has a reputation for being guilessly awkward or narcissistic yet unaware. He shines in send-ups of hipsters and the type of young people who become flash-in-the-pan celebrities for appearing on reality shows, but Terry marks a departure for Early. Terry takes things at face value and decides how to feel about it. Then he feels these feelings very deeply, whether love, rage or curiosity. Early could have played the role as an easily likable character, but the actor goes the extra step to balance him on the cusp of the audience’s regard.
The entire cast teeters above the void of insincerity, and each one has characteristics that either endear them to viewers, repel them, or both, often at the same time. The entire film feels like a modern-day take on a Charles Busch film. It’s a play come to life, and there are monologues and stage-right exits, some slapstick thrown in for good measure. It’s like Shakespeare in the Park for Park Slope millennials. It gleefully sets the tone so viewers know exactly what to expect when the movie starts and will stay enthralled to the very end.
I highly recommend the film. Hammel is a new voice, though she premiered episodic shorts at 2023‘s Sundance with My Trip to Spain, which also starred Early. Hammel has a background in music, so it’s a pleasant surprise to see her so adept with a confident voice and eye. She makes a few missteps typical of any debut feature, but it doesn’t take away from the beauty of the film. I look forward to seeing where she goes next, especially as a new voice in queer cinema.
Stress Positions will continue to play at the Sundance Film Festival. A wide release from Neon is pending.