Stress Positions Review | Nothing If Not Appropriately Titled

by Andrew Parker

Theda Hammel’s debut feature Stress Positions is a darkly tinted comedy of errors that will push the viewer to their exhausted breaking point. That’s the entire vibe that Hammel is going for, so in that respect Stress Positions is a success, but it’s also not a great thing for the viewer. The definition of an “acquired taste,” the steps it takes for Hammel to achieve her goal are as punishing for her protagonist as they are for the audience. If Gaspar Noe or Michael Haneke decided to make a pandemic set comedy about entitled queer millennials, they might turn out something close to Hammel’s work, although their films would come with a bit more polish and substance. Stress Positions is a tough sit. It’s meant to be tough. But it’s also curiously underwhelming for all Hammel is putting the audience through.

Poor Terry Goon (John Early) is having a rotten time in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. He’s quarantining at the home of his lecherous, hard partying ex-husband (John Roberts), and is trying the best he can to care for his visiting Moroccan cousin, Bahlul (Qaher Harhash), a model who’s laid up in a leg cast. Terry, who’s terrified of getting sick, wants people to respect his space, but his pushy friends are constantly demanding to get a glimpse of this hot new guy that’s staying in the house. As people start to get increasingly antsy from their pandemic isolation, it gets harder and harder for Terry to keep the outside world and all the chaos it brings at bay.

Hammel, who also wrote, edited, and scored the film in addition to playing Terry’s pushy friend, Karla, is juggling too many balls to keep everything on an even keel. It’s clear that Hammel subscribes to the belief that “tragedy + time = comedy,” but a lot of the gags and jokes in Stress Positions already come with a degree of staleness, and it’s up to Early’s formidable timing and physical abilities to wring even the slightest chuckles out of the material. Hammel has amassed a blend of professionals and novice actors to portray a wide array of New York City oddballs and misfits, but no one gels together with an authentic sense of comedic or dramatic chemistry to suggest they would all run in the same circles outside of their unifying degrees of queerness. This material requires a lot of the cast, but only some of the performers are up to the task. The run-and-gun indie nature of Hammel’s shooting style also leaves little room for error, and makes some of the performative shortcomings harder to overlook.

The tone of Stress Positions is as abrasive and catty as one can get right out of the gate, and Hammel is at least up front about what the rest of the film is going to be like. That “take it or leave it” approach initially sets up something interesting about where people’s minds go when they have nothing but time on their hands to overthink everything. Stress Positions also opens with an interesting conversation about othering that one wishes Hammel would follow up on, but it never goes anywhere meaningful. Hammel pushes things further with brief shots at religion, race, sexuality, inclusivity, and the gig economy via a variety of unnecessary subplots that pile up like a multi-vehicle accident, but it always comes across as a list of gripes more than a coherent statement on the ways people refuse to see the world beyond their own narrow experiences and comprehensions.

At the outset, Hammel doesn’t speak down to Terry’s neuroses, making it clear that he’s a flawed, but sympathetic person who deserves some happiness after a long period of depression. But as Stress Positions makes its way to its unhinged and patently unbelievable Fourth of July cookout climax, Hammel has crossed the line between anarchic dark comedy and unknowing cruelty. The film gets exponentially wackier, especially with the arrival of Roberts’ man-child to the fray, but it also stops being insightful or amusing. It ends with a string of gags that become tiresome, but still told with the same shrill and manic energy Hammel has employed from the start. The final act of the film feels like the work of the same writer and director, but cobbled together from a different script altogether.

Stress Positions is the kind of story that would work a lot better as a short film or an extended series of episodes. That might dampen the impact Hammel is hoping to have, but it would allow her more of a chance to let the many ideas and themes inherent in the story percolate and blossom into something greater than the sum of their parts here. Stress Positions is certainly ambitious, and it’s always swinging for the fences, but the foul balls being hit are bound to smack viewers in the face more than they will get them excited.

Stress Positions is now available in Canada on VOD. It was first screened as part of the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.

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