Stress Positions

Stress Positions
April 13th 2024

The “children of Sodom” struggle to care for one another in Theda Hammel’s Stress Positions (2024). In her feature directorial debut, the infamous NYMPHOWARS co-host dissects a vapid friend group’s insularity. The film contrasts a privileged “gay guy world” with an outsider’s experience of such a world’s discontents. Hammel co-wrote the film with Faheem Ali, and they both star alongside John Early and Qaher Harhash. Like any good triple-threat, Hammel also recorded the music—crunchy techno that seamlessly connects the disparate parts of her messy film. (It makes sense that she was originally trained as a sound engineer.)

“This movie is so jammed with stuff, the people never stop talking,” Hammel recently told PAPER. On its face, Stress Positions is a claustrophobic sex comedy, set during the summer of 2020, about a recently divorced gay guy named Terry Goon (John Early) who is taking care of his nephew, Bahlul (Qaher Harhash), a Moroccan-American model with a broken leg. Their two experiences are consistently juxtaposed. Terry’s frenetic Brooklyn life is a constant circus, including Hammel’s garrulous but charming Karla. Bahlul, meanwhile, discovers a series of old DVDs that feature his white mother narrating her desire for “an authentic experience” while she travels from Amsterdam to Tangier. The videos consume him, haunting his dreamy diaristic reveries about New York, identity, and longing.

There’s a farcical gap between Bahlul and Terry’s respective worlds and their moral codes. This allows Hammel to go hard on the failures of the white queer community throughout the film. Karla constantly says things like, “Where are you from? No, where are you really from?” to Bahlul, and makes quips about “little brown boys.” And Terry wants to protect Bahlul from his world, even though his nephew yearns for adventure and connection. It’s the reason he went into modeling, though he finds himself stymied by how mundane New York City really is. After all, it’s a place just like any other. The cloistered Brooklynites offer no solutions to life’s problems despite the allure of life in the Big Apple and the film is most interesting when Bahlul takes the narration over with his meandering poetic reflections about Fire Island, which accompany images of long boat rides and windy beaches. Hammel is exploring the difficulty of finding true community in Stress Positions, and its sprawling cast is part of the point—from the chaser and food delivery guy Ronald (co-writer Ali) to the mysterious landlady who lives above Terry. These characters touch and go, refracting each other’s desires and scrutinizing each other’s suffering. The problem is no one in the film is a good guy. Like any good sex comedy, secrets start spilling over the course of a fateful party that takes place in the third act.

Stress Positions is strongest when it lets its characters speak in messy, irony-laden monologues at each other. Karla spends a lot of time discussing the toxicity of the gay guy world, chastises Terry’s disposition, and makes jokes about the Middle East, all while Bahlul simply listens and tells her that she is a very beautiful woman. She jokes that Terry should transition. “Not everyone is trans!” he roars back, rolling his eyes like the tired straight man to her Lucy Ricardo. He’s tired of his old partying ways and is desperately trying to avoid getting COVID. These sentiments provide Early with an opportunity to showcase his physical comedy, which is in top form as he wipes down nearly every surface in sight, frantically asks his landlady Coco to put on a mask, and expresses feeling bad for the DoorDash driver by making a show of his cash tip. In one scene, he breathlessly runs from one end of the apartment to the other in order to bang pots and pans for the essential personnel who continued to work during the summer of 2020.

Hammel is pulling on a lot of threads throughout the film, but in the end she manages a daring détente—ambulances crash, Macy Rodman dances in the spray of a fire hydrant, and perverted motivations are revealed among the film’s characters. While Stress Positions can sometimes get lost in its web of characters, its investigation of community remains unclouded throughout. More often than not, Hammel’s characters prefer to gossip and fuck rather than engage in meaningful friendships; they’re too busy to actually ask Bahlul any meaningful questions or come off their high horses to talk to their neighbors without any social-justice jargon. Eventually, Bahlul realizes that his new friends are wicked; they are morally bankrupt, trying to burn American flags and say the right thing about race while failing to actually connect with one another in Hammel’s witty tale of disillusionment.

Stress Positions opens at the Roxie, Friday, April 26.



Stress Positions screens this evening, April 13, and on April 14, at Film at Lincoln Center as part of “New Directors / New Films.” Director Theda Hammel will be in attendance for a Q&A.