Review by Sean Boelman
For a while there, the film festival circuit was dominated by films shot during and/or about the COVID-19 pandemic, and while we’re mostly past that stage of the film industry, there are a few stragglers. Theda Hammel’s Stress Positions is not what you might expect from that setup, though, using its setting to dive deeper into far more complex themes.
In the film, John Early plays a man in quarantine caring for his 19-year-old model nephew in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, as everything around him seems to be going wrong. A lot is happening in Stress Positions, and the amount of energy and hecticness will understandably be off-putting to some. Still, there’s a strangely resonant through-line to be found amidst all the anxiety.
The glue of this film is Early, whose performance is incredibly chaotic in a way that few actors could pull off without being absolutely detestable — and thankfully, Early does. Early is just incredibly exasperated for so much of the runtime, and it’s great because we feel like we can laugh at him but feel bad for him at the same time.
The rest of the cast also has moments to shine. Hammel herself plays a pivotal supporting role and essentially serves as the emotional counterweight to Early’s wackiness. Qaher Harhash starts as a lovable goof, but by the third act, his performance evolves into something much more subtle and quietly poignant.
Finding a film with more esoteric humor than Stress Positions would be hard. There are a lot of jokes and situations that only certain people are likely to find funny. Some are aimed at queer people, others are aimed at New Yorkers, and more yet at multicultural individuals. If you don’t fall into one (or more) of the groups Hammel is speaking to with this film, you might be out of luck.
However, the parts of Stress Positions likely to stick with audiences long after the credits roll are not the jokes but the poetic stretches driven by narration split between Hammel and Harhash. Although the film is literally about the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hammel finds a way to spin this universal anxiety into something more specific — namely cultural anxiety and queer anxiety — both of which are expressed more bluntly here than a lot of films have done in the past.
From a technical standpoint, the film is exceptionally frenetic and sometimes even ugly. Since Hammel’s goal is to capture the zeitgeist of the moment we felt during a locked-down summer, this sweaty, messy look works quite well. The one thing that doesn’t exactly work is the juxtaposition with some of the film’s calmer moments, which stick out.
Stress Positions is not a film that everyone will appreciate, but it’s also not a film that was made for everyone. Unlike many COVID-19 films in the past, Theda Hammel uses this collective anxiety in a way that feels incredibly personal and idiosyncratic, making this stand out far more than some of the pandemic-themed productions we’ve seen.
Stress Positions screened at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, which ran January 18-28 in-person in Park City, UT and online from January 25-28.