Film Review: Stress Positions | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Tuesday, May 21st, 2024  

Stress Positions

Studio: Neon
Director: Theda Hammel

Apr 30, 2024 Web Exclusive
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Stress Positions, the excellent new comedy from writer-director-costar Theda Hammel, approaches its story from two angles. The first is a punchy take on screwball comedy set during the height of the Covid pandemic, which serves as a backdrop for the second, a more grounded and contemplative coming-of-age. At turns laugh-out-loud funny, deeply melancholic, and downright radical, it arrives as the most invigorating and challenging film likely to be slotted under LGBT Voices on a streaming service one day.

At the center of it all is one of the sadder sacks of recent cinema, the transcendently named Terry Goon (John Early). Terry has been relegated to a meager existence in his wealthy newly ex-husband’s deserted New York City “party house” to weather the pandemic as their divorce is finalized. His life is further disrupted by news that his half-Moroccan nephew Bahlul, an aspiring model, has broken his leg and needs a place to recuperate. So Terry sets about tending to Bahlul as best he can– cooking, cleaning, and shouting like a madman at anyone who threatens to violate social-distancing regulations or shows up sans-N95. However, when word gets around in Terry’s social circle that a sexy young man has taken up residence, a string of oddball characters weasel their way into his brokedown palace to gawk and bitch and generally wreak havoc on what’s left of Terry’s crumbling life.

With his particular brand of pressure-cooker mania in full force, Early turns in a riotous lead performance, hitting his comedic marks with skilled precision while imbuing Terry with a genuinely pitiful weariness. The brunt of the Covid material falls squarely on his shoulders, and the film successfully walks the fine line of finding the humor in the absurdity (Terry spraying his upstairs tenant with Lysol in one moment and then haphazardly wrapping a sleeve around his mouth to grab delivery food the next, for instance) without ever bogging the audience down in the weight of what was a frightening and tragic time. Primarily, Stress Positions sees the pandemic as a mere fast-tracking of an already surmounting moral decrepitude in Terry’s world. If you’re not certain Covid is something you want to chuckle about, exactly, I wouldn’t worry much.

Rounding out the main cast are writer-director Hammel as Terry’s best friend Karla, a frustrated and quippy trans-woman, and Qaher Harhash as Bahlul. A scene in which these three celebrate Bahlul’s twentieth birthday is a stand-out, with Terry and Karla putting on full display both their ignorance (racist microaggressions abound as they discover, for instance, that Morocco is not in the Middle East) and their occasional brilliance. Karla’s tirade about the oppressive sexual politics of the gay scene and further implication that her transition was, at least partially, a ticket out of that particular gay hell, is genuinely devastating, thought-provoking, and flies in the face of the accepted ways of discussing these issues. When Bahlul asks her if she feels like a woman, she flatly replies, “No, no one really does. I wanted to kill myself and this made it better.”

It’s unclear how much Stress Positions wants you to seriously consider the flagrant things its characters spout out, but what is clear is that it is populated by fairly horrible people, making it a far cry from the standard queer fare that often seeks so desperately to ingratiate itself to a broader audience. Isn’t the suffering of gay people sad, and don’t you see we’re just like anyone else, and don’t you think we deserve some human rights, pretty please, they all seem to ask. Well, the people scrambling about Terry Goon’s house are certainly sad and suffering, but they’re also nasty, self-serving, morally bankrupt, and unapologetic about it all. If one were to set about watching the film with the specific intention of making bad-faith arguments against the queer community, one’d have a field day, and there’s an admirable audacity to Hammel’s unwillingness to compromise or concern herself with positive representation.

Amidst all the chaos, Bahlul is on a journey of self-discovery brought about by a brief clip of his mother seen in Terry’s wedding videos. Through voiceover he tells her story, and consequently his own, trying to reconcile her moral extremism with the person he is becoming and the world in which he finds himself. Being of a younger generation, he feels less compelled to classify himself, though the film implies a fluidity to his gender, or at least a burgeoning curiosity around it and a sensitivity to the way the world perceives and desires him. Harhash lights up the screen and grounds the entire movie, bringing an emotional purity and truth-seeking gaze to his portrayal of Bahlul.

The real brilliance of Hammel’s script is how the alchemy of these two modes yields the film’s true intent: to mercilessly skewer a particular subset of millennials. What is first presented as pure comedy, almost as if an episode of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia were populated exclusively by queer people, is slowly revealed, through Bahlul’s lack of guile or cynicism, to be something sadder and more monstrous– a generational wasteland wrought by woefully warped values. When a gag the film has been setting up across most of its runtime finally pays off, it’s a bewildering experience– funny, no question, but also kind of appalling. What might have been a belly laugh earlier is now something more complex. It’s in this gray area where Stress Position comes to life, each laugh designed to cut. It’s a must-see.

Author rating: 8/10

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