Chaos reigns in Stress Positions, an anarchic comedy that throws viewers headfirst into the anxious existence of a group of neurotic New Yorkers during the 2020 COVID lockdown. Making her directorial debut, Theda Hammel pulls triple duty as writer, director, and star of this freewheeling feature that upends expectations at every turn.
Leading the charge is comedian John Early of Search Party fame, unleashing a tour-de-force performance as the high-strung Terry Goon, a gay man on the verge of divorce struggling to keep it together while quarantining. When his 19-year old nephew Bahlul (Qaher Harhash) comes to stay after breaking his leg, Terry’s makeshift pandemic pod descends into mayhem. Enter Terry’s hard-partying husband, manipulative trans friend, voyeuristic landlady and a host of other loopy characters, and you’ve got a recipe for glorious disaster.
Peppered with searing wit, sly social commentary and a dash of absurdist humor, Stress Positions plunges us into the manic mindset of millennials grappling with ennui, hypocrisy and their own neuroses. Hammel and Early make an ingenious comedic duo, with Early’s pinpoint meltdowns playing perfectly against Hammel’s deadpan provocations.
So brace yourself for the rollercoaster ride that is Stress Positions – a whirlwind gallery of 21st century personalities that’s sure to leave audiences reeling with uncomfortable recognition and raucous laughter.
Navigating Life’s Absurdities in Quarantine-Era Brooklyn
At its core, Stress Positions is a character-driven comedy of errors set during the 2020 COVID lockdown in Brooklyn. Our guide to this chaotic world is anxiety-riddled Terry Goon (John Early), who finds his already precarious existence spiraling out of control when his 19-year-old nephew Bahlul comes to stay.
Still reeling from his husband Leo jetting off to Berlin and rendering their marriage kaput, Terry has become an agoraphobic germaphobe, sterilizing every surface and panicking about viral spread. The last thing he needs is his sister’s son on crutches taking over the basement. But Bahlul’s unexpected arrival sets off a chain reaction of calamitous events.
Soon Terry’s days are filled with fretting over Bahlul and fending off intrusions from his passive-aggressive landlady, manipulative trans friend Karla, and a menagerie of other unhinged characters. When Leo returns wanting a divorce, tensions hit a fever pitch, culminating in an ill-fated 4th of July party that literalizes the explosions going off internally for all involved.
While the premise seems to promise pandemic-related hijinks, Hammel smartly uses the lockdown backdrop to stage an incisive character study exposing how crisis and close quarters bring internal quirks to the forefront. Through Terry and crew’s foibles, she explores themes of millennial malaise, performative wokeness, and the chasm between Gen Z and their predecessors regarding identity politics and gender expression.
Bahlul serves as a foil to the characters’ myopia, his religious upbringing and North African roots making him an alien in his American relatives’ world. This fish-out-of-water perspective casts their hang-ups into sharp relief even as he questions his own place on the gender spectrum.
In mining the absurdities born of confinement and social distancing, Hammel reveals something innately human. Our personalities and peccadillos loom large when magnified by isolation. Facing down anxieties in close quarters with misfits and strangers, as Terry does, makes for insightful commentary on how crisis can bring out our best and worst selves.
Peppered with physical comedy, absurdist detours and Murphy’s Law run amok, Stress Positions may exploit dire circumstances for laughs, but recognizes that life often borders on farce even absent a pandemic. By leaning into that truth, Hammel has crafted an ode to the humor and humility found when we’re forced to sit with our own unraveling.
A Frenetically Farce You Can’t Turn Away From
Stress Positions moves at an exhilarating clip, its screwball premise met by suitably chaotic execution. If the film’s underlying atmosphere of anxiety threatens to overwhelm, director Theda Hammel counters with a breezy style blending mockumentary techniques and absurdist detours. The camerawork feels simultaneously improvised and intentional, mirroring her characters’ barely-holding-it-together states of mind.
Shooting on the fly, cinematographer Arlene Muller’s roving lens embeds us directly into the action. The camera careens wildly at times, struggling to keep pace as scenes build to crescendos of calamity. But there’s a method to the madness – Pearson Wright’s nimble editing adds to the controlled chaos, cutting rapidly to accentuate heightened emotions.
Hammel further adds layers through voiceover narration from multiple perspectives. Opening in Terry’s headspace, we’re soon privy to Karla’s acerbic asides before closing with nephew Bahlul’s poignant personal revelations. This revolving door of POVs season the comedy with surprising depth.
An atmospheric synth score composed by Hammel herself peppers scenes with ominous energy. It crescendos anxiously then devolves into almost mocking musical laughs – the sonic equivalent of a panic attack undercut by uncomfortable self-awareness.
That tonal oxymoron summarizes the balancing act of Stress Positions overall. In reflecting her characters’ chaotic unraveling through mockumentary flourishes and perfectly inappropriate soundtrack cues, Hammel creates the cinematic equivalent of unsettled minds, pinging rapidly between fight-flight-or-freeze responses.
It would be dizzying if Hammel didn’t also counterbalance chaos with well-timed reality checks. Brief moments of shared humanity emerge from the controlled anarchy – glimpses proving that for all their performative posturing, these are people privately struggling to hold onto some shred of stability when the world has been upended.
Somehow both dizzyingly frenetic and endearingly clumsy, Stress Positions pulls viewers into an absurd funhouse that feels strangely familiar, proving our shared vulnerability even if we handle crises differently.
Standout Performances Bring Quirky Characters Into Focus
While Stress Positions boasts an ensemble cast of NYC’s most neurotic, the film orbits around John Early’s magnetic performance as Terry Goon. Early first made waves with his hilariously unhinged cameo appearances everywhere from High Maintenance to Search Party. But here he’s given the space to showcase his improvisational skills at feature length. The result is a cringe-inducing display of histrionics as his Terry ping-pongs between barely contained panic attacks and full emotional meltdowns.
Yet Early’s theatrical portrayal somehow remains grounded, eliciting equal parts laughter and empathy for this human volcano ready to erupt at the slightest inconvenience. We shouldn’t relate to his narcissistic hypochondria, yet his barely-bottled-up anxiety still proves achingly familiar.
Theda Hammel crafts an equally indelible character in Karla, Terry’s “friend” whose breezy manipulations cut all the deeper for being delivered casually. She’s the worst in the best way – stealing Terry’s liquor while pretending to care about his unraveling. Hammel clearly relishes playing this master manipulator. Still, she brings enough deadpan likeability that when Karla eventually shows vulnerability, it feels deserved.
While the supporting characters threaten to veer into caricature, deft performances keep them multidimensional. Amy Zimmer finds the grounded humanity beneath girlfriend Vanessa’s militant veganism. And Rebecca F. Wright turns nosy neighbor Coco into a source of physical comedy with her silently judging scenes spying on Terry’s deteriorating situation.
Striking a Balance Between Madcap Humor and Messy Excess
Stress Positions’ greatest asset is its full-throttle committal to chaotic humor rooted in cringeworthy reality. Neither politically correct nor polished, it bottles the lightning of 2020 anxiety and lets it loose to electrifying – if divisive – effect. The no-holds-barred comedy largely works thanks to magnetic lead turns by Theda Hammel and John Early. Their cacophonous character dynamics power the brisk 95-minute runtime through sheer force of neurotic will.
Yet that devotion to chaos also threatens narrative cohesion. In her eagerness to Stuff Life’s madness into a cinematic pressure cooker, Hammel risks sensory overload. Dueling voiceovers, frenetic editing, even the mockumentary cinematography all start to feel like forced quirks rather than organic style once the film passes a certain threshold of absurdity.
The plot itself embodies that tension – conceptually strong, faltering slightly in execution. Setting the action entirely over a few days creates natural stakes as tensions boil, but denies meaningful arcs for anyone save Bahlul. And his intriguing coming-of-age amid madness gets buried at times by Terry and Karla’s histrionics. The ingredients promise a satisfying meal; the final product proves more of a sugary pre-dinner snack.
That lack of substance extends to the ending. We close on an ambiguous moment that crystallizes Bahlul’s emotional journey but abandons Terry mid-crisis. It’s thematically apropos yet emotionally unfulfilling. We needed an additional scene allowing this makeshift family to sit with each other’s damage before moving on to uncertain futures.
Uneven plotting and inadequate resolution prevent Stress Positions from fully realizing its potential. But perhaps imperfect execution befits Hammel’s sloppy-yet-lovable characters. In mirroring their well-observed self-absorption through imbalanced story beats, the film’s flaws speak truths about life rarely depicted onscreen.
For all its loose strands, Stress Positions still weaves magic by bravely bottling the absurd. As a document of society-wide unravelling born of anxiety and isolation, it may resonate more strongly as pandemic memories marinate. Its manic highs outweigh any lulls…if barely. But that tonal balancing act stays exhilarating enough to keep us invested through the final false start.
Hammel’s Personal Lens Grounds the Madness
As an openly trans filmmaker, Theda Hammel infuses Stress Positions with unique perspectives on gender, identity politics and the modern queer experience. Her fluid sense of self permeates the film’s recalibration of societal norms and fluid depictions of sexuality across spectra. This is a decidedly personal project, evident in everything from Hammel’s triple duty as writer-director-star to the synth-heavy score she composed herself.
That intimacy translates into raw humanity. Flawed characters confront hypocrisies around performative wokeness because Hammel has lived those contradictions firsthand. Plot absurdities embody the destabilized realities of 2020 because Hammel endured the vertigo of transitioning genders against a backdrop of global upheaval herself.
Moments like Terry’s insensitive outburst questioning why “everyone is trans” prove rewarding because they force introspection for cis viewers while striking notes deafeningly true for the trans experience. Such honesty around internalized biases emerges from the mind of an artist grappling with her own evolving relationship to gender identity while crafting life into art.
Yet beyond prioritizing underrepresented voices, Hammel displays creative courage allowing characters’ foibles space for discovery. Contemporary portraits of queerness often present sanitized, inoffensive versions of LGBTQ+ lives, whereas Hammel embraces the glorious messiness of living authentically – pandemic be damned.
That delicate balance between honesty and empathy makes Stress Positions feel both timely and enduring. By attacking hypocrisy while hugging humanity, Hammel has crafted a compassionate concentration of 2020’s harsh truths. Looking back years later, we’ll gain appreciation for how Hammel transmuted societal madness into personal catharsis while making room for self-discovery stories seldom spotlighted by Hollywood.
A Time Capsule of Millennial Life During Crisis
In the moment, pandemic humor can feel flippant or forced. But as trauma fades, a film like Stress Positions may earn appreciation as a time capsule preserving peak social anxiety. The chaos of 2020 lives on through these characters’ maladaptive coping and makeshift connections in a brave new quarantined world.
Amid topical tales of heroic healthcare workers or algorithmic outbreak trackers, Hammel spotlights the aimless and anxious – arguably those most impacted by the lockdown’s emotional toll. The film bottles the psychological vertigo when daily structures disappeared for those whose lifestyles already lacked direction or purpose.
Seeing Terry devolve from garden-variety neurotic to full recluse afraid to touch deliveries paints a poignant portrait of clinical anxiety run rampant. While played for awkward laughs, his spiral resonates more solemnly now that we recognize COVID’s lingering impacts on mental health. Hammel makes room for our past naivety while paying its price forward.
The film may also emerge as an unwitting period piece on a vanished bohemian era in Brooklyn history. Shooting on location in the height of gentrification, it captures the vestigial remnants of artsy allure before being wholly conquered by finance bros. There is poetic irony now in such lavish townhouses serving as playgrounds for the underemployed and unstable rather than millionaires.
Most winningly, Stress Positions preserves the infancy of a more fluid understanding around gender identity. Bahlul’s quest to write their own story outside traditional labels, Terry’s insensitive yet telling pushback – “Not everyone is trans!” – these moments crystallize society’s early reckoning with pronouns and self-identification. Hammel bottles the whiplash adjustment phase to a new normal still being defined.
An ensemble piece for an era ruled by isolation, Stress Positions suggests collectivity persists if we’re vulnerable enough to find it in misfits and strangers. Ironically by leaning into our worst behaviors, Hammel explores the shared comedy and connectivity holding communities together – even across oceans or through pandemics. However messy its execution, her ambitious film may only gain emotional resonance as viewers gain distance on the moment it messily strives to capture.
Bottom Line: A Boldly Imperfect Comedy of Uncommon Chaos
Stress Positions won’t be for everyone with its brash humor spotlighting marginalized voices that mainstream tastes may still struggle to welcome. But there lies the very strength in Hammel’s uncompromising vision – this hot mess of a film radiates radical humanity.
By leaning into discomfort and the sloppy, chaotic reality of navigating shifting paradigms around identity, Hammel has crafted a rallying cry that “not everyone is trans…but everyone is weird!” There is fellowship to be found in our flaws if we face them together.
Embracing the cringe proves rewarding thanks to a stellar ensemble cast headed by breakout Early and stealth standout Harhash. Their dynamic hijinks make Stress Positions’ manic highs well worth enduring its messy lulls in pacing and uneven resolutions.
Will everyone fall for Hammel’s unvarnished farce? Certainly not in these polarized times. But between tension-diffusing laughter and glimmers of our shared vulnerability, there lies medicine for an ailing world too often afraid to face its own frayed state openly. Stress Positions may best suit audience segments thirsting for authentic representation and hungering for humorous relief from trying times. For those feeling seen in its funhouse mirror chaos, Hammel has bottled a rebellious brand of comic catharsis begging for a cult following.
In short, Stress Positions is a hot mess – but it’s the kind of glorious trainwreck you can’t peel your eyes from even at its most awkward. And we just might find that’s precisely the kind of radical imperfections we need reflected back more often.
Stress Positions is an imperfect yet potently humane film that may resonate more strongly as the trauma of 2020 fades from immediacy. While Hammel threatens sensory overload in her quest to bottle anxiety, flawed characters earn our empathy if not sympathy. Buoyed by magnetic performances, the film’s reckless fearlessness proves as resonant as its execution remains rough. For niche audiences, it already succeeds as a therapeutic time capsule of marginalized voices during an era ruled by isolation. Less forgiving viewers may continue overlooking the diamonds buried in this buffet-style comedy’s messy rough. Yet at its high points, Stress Positions serves up radical honesty around mental health with a generosity of spirit that builds bridges across lines of politics, gender and human fallibility.
- Magnetic performances by John Early and Theda Hammel
- Fearless commentary on social issues like gender, sexuality, wokeness
- Captures the zeitgeist of pandemic-era anxiety and isolation
- Fast-paced screwball comedy with absurdist humor
- Authentic representation of LGBTQ+ experiences
- Plot can feel messy and overloaded
- Most characters are unlikable and self-absorbed
- Uneven pacing and lack of narrative focus
- The ending lacks satisfactory resolution
- Style and mockumentary format risks sensory overload