Credit: NEON
by Daniel Gorman Featured Film Horizon Line

Stress Positions — Theda Hammel

April 26, 2024

In a 2020 essay by David Farrier, written at the very beginning of Covid lockdowns, the writer quotes Arundhati Roy, who calls the pandemic “a portal,” and “a gateway between one world and the next.” The choice, she says, “will be between a world we know and one we have yet to imagine.” Theda Hammel’a new film Stress Positions seems like an attempt to chart this choice, albeit in a roundabout way. Structured like a classic screwball comedy, Stress Positions chronicles the frantic misadventures of a handful of insufferable people coming and going, colliding into each other and the confinement of early Covid like a car crash you can’t take your eyes off of. Occasionally unpleasant and frequently aggressive, it’s the best comedy of the year so far.

At the center of this flurry of agitated action is Terry (John Early), an out of work and soon-to-be-divorced loser living in his ex-husband’s rundown Brooklyn brownstone. In between arguing with his ex and trying to get the Wi-Fi to work, Terry is trying to care for his 18-year-old nephew, Bahlul (Qaher Harhash). Bahlul is recovering from a broken leg sustained in a scooter accident, necessitating hands-on attention from the easily flustered Terry. Bahlul is also a biracial model (his mother is white, his father Moroccan), and therefore a kind of “exotic specimen” that Terry’s best friend Karla (played by director Theda Hammel herself) is desperate to get a look at. But Terry is trying his best to maintain a strict quarantine, refusing entry to Karla and only allowing eccentric upstairs neighbor Coco (Rebecca F. Wright) to enter the space if fully masked. This motley assortment also includes Karla’s girlfriend, Vanessa (Amy Zimmer), Terry’s ex-husband Leo (John Roberts), Leo’s new fiancée, and DoorDash delivery driver Ronald (Faheem Ali), who gets roped into this bizarre, insular world against his will.

Early’s frantic, wildly physical performance sets the tone for much of the film’s first act; Terry is constantly in motion, yelling into his phone while running up and down the stairs to get food from Ronald (the constant adjusting of the face mask and the ever-present aerosol disinfectant that he sprays in all directions might be a little too familiar to those still reeling from lockdowns). It all culminates in a ludicrous kitchen accident, which finally forces Terry to let Karla come over. It’s here that Hammel reveals her real gifts as a writer/director, allowing the narrative to open up as different characters temporarily become the focus of individual sequences. Karla is more assertive than Terry, while Bahlul is calm and collected. It’s their scenes together that create a sort of emotional throughline for the narrative; these characters might be self-centered and occasionally annoying, but they become recognizably human.

Eventually, Bahlul gets to narrate his own life story via voiceover, which details his life with his mother (Terry’s sister), Abigail (Elizabeth Dement). She becomes a kind of phantom presence, only glimpsed in opaque flashbacks and photos, but her story — traveling to other countries, yearning for authenticity, falling in love with a Black man but eventually leaving him — stands as both parallel and counterpoint to Terry and Karla’s own searches for identity. Hammel mercilessly mocks herself and other elder-millennial’s self-centeredness, a generation bookended by 9/11 on one end and the pandemic on the other. They flaunt their unearned privilege (as contrasted to Ronald’s gig economy job) while attempting to mold the much younger Bahlul into a version of themselves. It’s fitting, then, that the film ends with Bahlul tentatively trying out his own new identity, free from his host’s neurosis. He absconds under cover of night, entering a symbolic portal into a new, uncharted future. Did we mention this is a comedy? It is, and one that bites down to the core, too. All manner of tomfoolery transpires over the course of several days, as Karla and Vanessa’s relationship falls apart, a 4th of July party descends into flag-burning, and Ronald’s scooter is stolen, but Hammel never loses sight of the real people underneath the antics.

DIRECTOR: Theda Hammel;  CAST: John Early, Theda Hammel, Qaher Harhash, Amy Zimmer, Farheem Ali;  DISTRIBUTOR: NEON;  IN THEATERS: April 19;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 35 min.