This review is part of our coverage of the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.
The Pitch: It’s the summer of 2020, and Terry Goon (John Early) is just trying to do his very best. He’s depressed, slovenly, a gay man in Brooklyn succumbing to the most painful stages of twink death. His sugar daddy husband (Bob’s Burgers’s John Roberts) has run off with an African model, the party house he’s living in is falling apart, and he has to care for his 19-year-old nephew Bahlul (Qaher Harhash), a bedridden Moroccan model with a leg injury that all of Terry’s queer friends think he’s sleeping with. To add a cherry on top of this crap sundae, Terry’s woes come amid the early days of COVID-19 lockdowns — when everyone was paranoid, lonely, and waving an active can of Lysol at anything within reach.
But Bahlul’s presence, and the intervention of his loyal but deeply messy friend Karla (writer/director Theda Hammel) and strange, mute upstairs neighbor Coco (Rebecca F. Right), add fuel to the fire for Terry’s deteriorating mental state. Throw in a cute GrubHub delivery boy (Faheem Ali), and Karla’s culture-vulture girlfriend (Amy Zimmer), and you’ve got an emotional hot zone no vaccine will be able to cure.
Goon Cave: While a host of coastal-comedian comedies came out in the last few years as a direct consequence of COVID-19’s medical and artistic restrictions (7 Days, The Bubble, How It Ends), Stress Positions is the first of these to feel like a true period piece. Making judicious use of her micro-budget confines, Hammel zeroes in on the mania and paranoia we felt in that horrific year: uncertainty about what measures actually kept us safe; hall-monitoring ours and others’ levels of precaution; gleaning virtue from our isolation, even as it killed our souls.
So much of that feeling is embodied in Early’s manic take on Terry Goon, a role both straight down the barrel of his catty comic brand and an apparent attempt to stretch out of those labels. Terry’s a loser, a man clearly unable to care for himself, bogged down with crippling anxiety about every aspect of his existence. Each phone call or doorbell buzz is an active injury to his existence, whether it’s another of his prying friends trying to catch a glimpse of the hot twink he’s hosting or the begrudging obligation of banging pots and pans at the appointed hour to support healthcare workers.
Contrast that to Bahlul, the least stressed character in Stress Positions — where Terry worries about everything, Bahlul reflects honestly and healthfully about his upbringing with a strict white Muslim mother. He responds with curiosity and joy to Karla’s presentation as a trans woman, taking joy in playing with gender himself. (“Not everybody’s trans!” Terry shouts to Karla after several attempts to push Bahlul toward transitioning.) It’s a delightfully centering performance in a film eclipsed by wild characters and unrelenting absurdism.
Hello To My Reflection: Speaking of Karla, she feels like Stress Positions’ true protagonist, even as the film flits from Terry to Bahlul to a variety of subjects over its dreamlike ninety minutes. Conflicting and competing voiceovers layer over the film’s more meditative stretches, each coming from unreliable narrators — a grasp at the ways 2020’s lockdowns often forced us to look inward at our pasts, and wonder whether this could be a pivot point for what’s really important.