L Movie Review 2It didn’t take long — the Way We Were Then pandemic shutdown indies have begun to burp out of the film festival love canal, with Theda Hammel’s Stress Positions taking point in the charge, fresh from this winter’s Sundance. Ah, the grueling months of mandatory masking and household bubbles and take-out deliveries and ever-earlier cocktail hours — sure, it was the fifth-deadliest pandemic in documented history, but was it that much of a cataclysm for most of us? However darkly we might remember it, we’re probably not going to get any “greatest generation” props for having toughed it out, which we did mostly in front of screens and mostly in our sweats.

Hammel’s movie gets the disconnect, and plays the naive narcissism for tart laughs. Co-written with Faheem Ali, who recurs in the story as a curious GrubHub delivery worker, the film trains in on a gay/trans New York bubble so tight it could be a Habitrail. Unfortunately, the interpersonal logistics are explained rather laboriously in narration: The frazzled and infection-dreading Terry (John Early), rooming for free in the brownstone “party house” owned by his absent husband, who’s filed for divorce, is nursing his Moroccan-by-way-of-New Jersey nephew Bahlul (Qaher Harhash), a young model whose leg was broken in a car accident. On the top floor lives a witchy, mute, chain-smoking squatter (Rebecca F. Wright). Intersecting compulsively with this unit — everyone’s interested in Bahlul — is Karla (Hammel), a trans schnorrer also glomming free rent, in this case from her partner, Vanessa (Amy Zimmer), a writer whose sole novel is entirely robbed, they say, from Karla’s life of hookups and trans-ness. The bickering and drinking roar on as a July 4 barbecue looms, and the lovable, wheelchair-bound Bahlul considers his future, career- and gender-identity-wise.

Once Karla’s narrational backfill lets up, the movie hits a rollicking hothouse comedy vibe, particularly in a sniping Terry-Karla-Bahlul late-night bull session over booze and cake. Fiercely satirical toward modern progressive narcissism, this is also a movie that’s not shy about slip-crash pratfalls — one of them actually on a banana peel. Once Terry’s soon-to-be-ex-husband, Leo (John Roberts), shows up, dressed in leather S&M straps and carting a cache of drugs, the silliness dial gets turned up further, climaxing (so to speak) with an ambulance visit occasioned by the entirely inappropriate use of a massage gun.

The effortless diversity on hand gives the movie a blithe, even careless New York feel, and maybe its biggest laugh (Karla obliviously chats up a Yemeni cabbie, asking him how things are at home. “Eh, it’s not going too well,” he shoots back). But farce is hard, and Hammel, whose prior credits boil down to the podcast NYMPHOWARS and to a single sitcom pilot she made in 2022, doesn’t quite have the jewel-cut timing and inventiveness of, say, the Emma Seligman-Rachel Sennott team (Shiva Baby, Bottoms). With it’s discursive battles about gender, veganism, and geographical ignorance (Morocco, Bahlul has to remind everyone many times, is not in the Middle East), Stress Positions can feel slight, and therefore sometimes a little forced. Which can also merely mean that if you’re on its wavelength and in its forgiving tribe, it can feel like a gift. It helps that the cast is roundly committed to the spirited friction, especially Early, who endures Terry’s sweaty accumulation of injuries, fears, and vexations with enraged exhaustion.

Ultimately, someone starts to cough, but the pandemic setting is more or less irrelevant to Hammel’s movie; this clutch of gabby neurotics would have the same arguments and precipitate the same disasters in the best of times. A sequel might be necessary.  





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