Review: ‘Stress Positions,’ starring John Early, Theda Hammel, Qaher Harhash, Amy Zimmer, Faheem Ali, Rebecca F. Wright, Davidson Obennebo and John Roberts

April 26, 2024

by Carla Hay

Theda Hammel in “Stress Positions” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Stress Positions”

Directed by Theda Hammel

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City in the summer of 2020, the comedy film “Stress Positions” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people, Middle Eastern people and Latin people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A gay man, who’s in the midst of a bitter divorce, is visited by his young adult nephew, who temporarily stays with him, as the nephew’s presence becomes a source of gossip and intrigue with the man’s best friend and other people in his social circle. 

Culture Audience: “Stress Positions” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in movies about the middle-class queer community in 2020s New York City, but this movie has a lot of unrealistic and silly dialogue.

Qaher Harhash in “Stress Positions” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Stress Positions” is the type of aimless and smug indie comedy that exists so the movie’s characters can aggravate each other and annoy viewers. The movie’s diverse LGBTQ representation deserves better than this incoherent story. It isn’t until the last 15 minutes that “Stress Positions” finally gets around to a part of the story that should have happened earlier. But by then, it’s too late to save this pretentious mess.

Written and directed by Theda Hammel, “Stress Positions” is Hammel’s feature-film directorial debut. She is also a co-star in the movie, where she portrays a gossipy and demanding transgender woman, who starts off as a supporting character and then turns into a co-lead character. (Hammel is a transgender woman in real life.) “Stress Positions” had its world premiere at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.

The movie is unfocused and confused about which character’s perspective has the story’s main point of view. One person narrates the first half of the movie, while another person narrates the second half of the movie. It gives the impression that Hammel’s screenplay writing was such a jumbled process, she didn’t bother to make the screenplay more cohesive because she also directed the movie. Maybe another writer/director could have salvaged this story into something that was more entertaining to watch, because the movie’s concept had potential to be made into a much better film than “Stress Positions.”

“Stress Positions” takes place in New York City’s Brooklyn borough in the summer of 2020, the period of time when COVID-19 infection rates were among the city’s highest of that year. The narrrator for the first half of the film is a transgender woman named Karla (played by Hammel), who says in the beginning of the movie that Terry Goon (played by John Early), who also lives in Brooklyn, is her best friend from college. Karla explains that Terry is a homemaker who’s in the middle of a bitter divorce from his husband Leo, who used to be Terry’s boss when Terry was an intern. (Leo’s occupation is not mentioned.)

Leo left Terry for another man and has been encouraging Terry to also find a new love. In the meantime, because Terry can’t afford his own place, he’s been staying in the former spouses’ apartment until the divorce is final. Karla also mentions in the voiceover that Terry has very limited work experience, because he quit his internship to become a homemaker in the longtime relationship that Terry had with Leo.

Terry is very high-strung, but the COVID-19 pandemic and the divorce have made him even more stressed-out and jumpy. Terry is so paranoid about getting infected with COVID-19, he sometimes wears a gas mask inside his house if he’s around people he doesn’t know are infected or not. Terry also makes an unexpected house guest wear a gas mask sometimes.

Terry’s unexpected house guest is his nephew Bahlul (played by Qaher Harhash), who has an American mother (Terry’s sister) and a Moroccan father. Bahlul was born in the United States but was raised in Morocco. Bahlul has done work as a model. He has arrived at Terry’s place with a broken left leg that was injured in a scooter accident. Therefore, Bahlul is mostly seen recovering in a bed, on a sofa or in a wheelchair.

Bahlul says his mother sent Bahlul to Terry’s place for a very good reason. As soon as Bahlul says this, you know exactly where this movie is going to go, since almost everyone in Terry’s socal circle is a member of the LGBTQ community. The only neighbors shown in this somewhat shabby walk-up apartment building are also queer. When Karla first meets Bahlul, he doesn’t say what his sexuality is, but she asks him if he’s ever dressed as a woman because he would make an attractive-looking woman.

Karla identifies as a transgender female lesbian. Her live-in girlfriend is a sarcastic and jaded author named Vanessa Ravel (played by Amy Zimmer), who is a politically active progressive feminist. Vanessa is somewhat self-conscious about originally being from suburban Larchmont, New York, because this suburb doesn’t fit her current image of being an urban hipster. Vanessa is also frustrated because she hasn’t been able to finish her second book. Vanessa’s first book is a novel called “Paulette,” whose title character was mainly inspired by Karla.

Karla has mixed feelings about the book. One the one hand, Karla brags to people that Vanessa wrote a book about her, and Karla sometimes autographs copies of “Paulette.” On the other hand, Karla feels resentment that Vanessa used her as the basis of the book, which apparently depicts Paulette as an unlikable character. Maybe the truth is a little to close for Karla’s comfort because Karla really is unlikable.

Karla is overly intrusive, rude, racist and xenophobic. Before Karla meets Bahlul and finds out that he is Terry’s nephew, she describes Bahlul as a “little brown kid” to Leo and wrongfully assumes that Bahlul is Terry’s lover. Whenever Karla meets people who aren’t white, Karla asks where they are from, because she expects them to give an answer that describes what their ethnicity is. If the person says that they are from somewhere in the United States, she asks the person where their family is from, to find out the family’s ethnicity or country of origin.

Karla does this type of interrogation when she meets a Grubhub delivery guy named Ronald (played by Faheem Ali), who delivers some Greek food to Karla one evening. Karla and Ronald strike up a flirtation. And it soon becomes clear that maybe Karla isn’t quite the “lesbian” that she says she is. Ronald’s bicycle becomes a pointless subplot in the movie.

The big “event” in “Stress Positions” is a Fourth of July barbecue party hosted by Terry in the apartment building’s tiny back courtyard. The movie doesn’t really explain how Terry goes from being so fearful of getting infected with COVID-19 that he wears a gas masks to Terry hosting an intimate gathering when COVID-19 infection rates are high, there’s no COVID-19 vaccine available at this point in time, and people won’t be wearing masks at this party. Two of the party guests are Terry’s obnoxious, cocaine-snorting, soon-to-be-ex-husband Leo (played by John Roberts) and Leo’s fiancé Hamadou (played by Davidson Obennebo), who politely asks Terry to sign the divorce papers so that they can all get on with their lives.

Terry (who has some slapstick scenes where he falls down more than once in the kitchen) is a stereotypical neurotic New Yorker. However, Terry’s story arc fades into the background as Karla and Bahlul (who is the narrator in the second half of the movie) have storylines that take over and dominate the movie. As Terry, Early clearly has the best comedic skills in the “Stress Positions” cast, so it’s a mistake that his talents are somewhat sidelined in the movie.

Bahlul talks mostly about his childhood in his tedious voiceovers, in which he comments on his mother almost as much as he talks about himself. (Bahlul is obviously a “mama’s boy.”) Even with all this talk, very little is revealed about who Bahlul is as a person, except when he tells Karla he’d like to write a book. Karla advises Bahlul to have more life experiences that he could put in a book.

“Stress Positions” has an irritating attitude that seems to say, “Showing a bunch of eccentric New York characters will be enough to make a good movie.” One of these eccentrics is Coco (played by Rebecca F. Wright), a mute upstairs neighbor who lives alone and appears to be a drag queen. Terry tells Ronald at one point in the story: “Coco’s not trans. She’s mentally ill.” Coco has only one pivotal scene in the film. Otherwise, she’s just in the movie to so a catty snob like Terry can make snide remarks about her.

“Stress Positions” will probably find a certain number of fans who automatically want to gush over anything that can be described as “quirky indie filmmaking,” while ignoring huge flaws in the filmmaking. (A lot of the movie has amateurish dialogue and unimpressive technical production.) The truth is that if you take away the underrepresented “diversity” in “Stress Positions,” it’s just another poorly made beginner film that is often dull. The identities of the characters are not reasons enough to care when their personalities and the story are so hollow.

Neon released “Stress Positions” in New York City on April 19, 2024, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on April 26, 2024.

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