Under COVID, Queer Chaos Reigns in Stress Positions

Movies Reviews Theda Hammel
Under COVID, Queer Chaos Reigns in Stress Positions

Stress Positions, Theda Hammel’s ambitious directorial debut, is a divisive dramedy that follows a trio of white, queer, Brooklyn-dwelling millennials as they navigate identity amidst the height of the pandemic. Going against the grain of a cultural landscape desperate to pretend like the COVID-19 pandemic never happened, Hammel dives headfirst into her exploration of the specific ways the universal experience of lockdown drove us all insane.

Brooklyn, Spring of 2020: The sirens are constantly wailing, and Terry (John Early) is hellbent on maintaining a rigid quarantine. However, it quickly becomes clear that his stringent masking, incessant Lysol spraying, obnoxious pot banging and other quarantine-specific behaviors are mechanisms for coping with the sudden collapse of his marriage to his former boss Leo (John Roberts, who you may know as the voice of Bob’s Burgers’ Linda Belcher), who has unceremoniously already moved on to hotter, younger tail in Berlin. 

Terry’s best friend Karla (Hammel), a trans woman who loudly reminds everyone of her Greek heritage at every turn, also finds herself in a failing relationship. Karla ensures that she won’t see or hear her relationship’s failures with “borrowed” alcohol and the sound of her own voice. Karla’s girlfriend Vanessa (Amy Zimmer), a vegan “Larchmont Jew,” built her budding literary career on a novel largely inspired by Karla’s transition, sans permission. Karla and Vanessa live together in a Greenpoint apartment paid for by the book, while Terry is holed up in one of his soon to be ex-husband’s properties, dubbed the “party house.” 

Although he is newly single, Terry is not alone in the party house. He has taken in his 19-year-old nephew Bahlul (IRL fashion model and exciting newcomer Qaher Harhash), a male model with a broken leg. At first he relies on Terry, but as Bahlul recovers, Terry’s mommying grows more and more suffocating to a teen with great cheekbones and long eyelashes on the brink of self-discovery in a new city. Bahlul finds friendship in Terry’s older, idiosyncratic upstairs neighbor Coco (Rebecca F. Wright), who is more a benevolent apparition overseeing the theatrics than she is an active participant—except to share her Marlboro Reds with Bahlul. 

Terry, Karla and Vanessa are all so hyper-focused on their identities—as Greek, as gay, as a writer, as “good”—and painfully stagnant in their lives, that they are somehow unable to take a minute to pull their heads out of their asses, to move out of their semi-self-inflicted stress positions. These circumstances are of course exacerbated by the COVID lockdown, but I have a sneaking suspicion that they would all still be the kind of people who publicly pose as international relations experts, but privately watch YouTube explainers on “the Middle East.” 

“Where are you from?” Karla asks a delivery driver named Ronald (Faheem Ali, who co-wrote the film with Hammel). She won’t accept it when he insists that he’s from New Jersey. 

Rather than enforcing concrete ideas of identity, Hammel as a writer/director is more interested in blurring the identity lines that her three central characters have so carefully drawn. In a daring and somewhat experimental move, Hammel achieves this by telling the story through two strands of voiceover instead of one. Our narrators, Karla and Bahlul, are at two separate points of a similar journey: Karla is comfortable in her own skin after her transition, whereas Bahlul has only just stepped to the precipice of exploring the bounds of gender and sexuality. Their voices bleed into each other, yet maintain their individuality as they reveal the gritty details of their lives. The decision to leave out Terry’s inner voice is a welcome one; in another story, he might be the main character, mired in sorrow over his impending divorce. Instead, he is a harried but admired uncle and best friend to two kindred spirits traversing life outside the confines of traditional gender roles.

Hammel is able to convey this liminal shift from past to present to potential unexplored futures using an off-kilter camera and frenetic sense of movement. At first, Hammel and cinematographer Arlene Muller shoot in close-up to heighten both the claustrophobia and the ridiculous humor found in life under lockdown. But as life forces her characters to forget what they thought they knew about themselves, her camera too abandons its constraints. Especially where Bahlul’s story is concerned, the camera twirls around and flips upside-down where a less energetic filmmaker might keep it still.

Hammel has been a regular fixture in the Brooklyn podcasting and music scenes before her recent turn as a filmmaker (she provided the thumping score for Stress Positions, in addition to co-editing, co-writing, directing and starring). Hammel’s raucous alt-comedy podcast Nymphowars, which she co-hosts with Macy Rodman, has been gleefully “covering” the chaotic trenches of underground gay internet culture for years, providing a delicious haven to those seeking transgressive humor. The freewheeling rhythm and slapstick comedy of Stress Positions are reminiscent of Nymphowars; the film is not as improvisational, but echoes its squelchy textures and unexpected humor. For example, a scene where Terry slips and crashes down not once, but twice, is executed with the exact cadence of a Nymphowars bit. “I slipped on a chicken,” Early deadpans, with clear disgust and annoyance with everything around him. 

With Stress Positions, Hammel has not only delivered cutting commentary on millennials’ obvious discomfort with aging and shined an excruciatingly bright light on ignorant people, she has also told an emotionally vulnerable story about defiant gender expression during a confusing moment in all of our lives. The repugnant interior of this film may not hold for everyone, but it’s undeniable that Hammel has put forth a spirited and funny vision of her world.

Director: Theda Hammel
Writers: Theda Hammel, Faheem Ali
Starring: John Early, Theda Hammel, Qaher Harhash, Amy Zimmer, Faheem Ali, Elizabeth Dement
Release Date: April 13, 2024 (New Directors/New Films) April 19, 2024 (Limited)

Brooklyn-based film writer Katarina Docalovich was raised in an independent video store and never really left. Her passions include sipping lime seltzer, trying on perfume and spending hours theorizing about Survivor. You can find her scattered thoughts as well as her writing on Twitter.

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