The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

“Stress Positions” review – Theda Hammel stuns with 2024’s funniest film

Yu Yu Blue

Much of modern comedy filmmaking is too concerned with being “funny.” Comedy filmmakers, talented as they can be, often default to aimless riffing in fear of losing a potential joke. In the process, they hurt whatever character-building the script they’re directing has given them. 

If done right, it can work (I find the work of Christopher Guest and early Taika Waititi incredibly charming), but more often than not it feels like I’m watching a bunch of people fuck around for two hours. They clearly don’t care about the movie, so why should I?

Theda Hammel, a multi-hyphenate artist and first-time director, understands the importance of a script. Not overly witty or impressed with itself, her debut feature, “Stress Positions,” is striking in its clear intentions as a piece of art while simultaneously being one of the funniest films I’ve seen in years. 

Taking place during the chaotic summer of 2020, “Stress Positions” follows recent divorcee and hypochondriac Terry Goon (John Early) as he tries to safeguard his New York apartment and his injured Moroccan nephew Bahlul (Qaher Harhash) from the Covid-19 pandemic. 

This comes to be an issue, as Bahlul’s good looks seem to attract everyone in Terry’s life, including Terry’s ex-husband Leo (John Roberts), his sole friend Karla (Theda Hammel) and her girlfriend Vanessa (Amy Zimmer), his landlord Coco (Rebecca F. Wright) and hapless Grubhub driver Ronald (Faheem Ali). While seemingly everyone in Brooklyn fawns after him, Bahlul comes to terms with his own journey as a queer person and his fraught relationship with his estranged mother. 

Characters weave in and out of the story with grace, and even Bahlul’s status as the apple in everyone’s eye doesn’t overrun any potential tension from other subplots. Hammel and Ali, the two co-writers, deftly craft a series of culture clashes that inspire hilarious “who’s on first” style gags about where Morocco actually is. In the same breath that they poke fun at these characters, they also pose genuine questions about why Americans are allowed to be so ambivalent about the world they live in. The world they’ve created is alive and expansive, despite most of the film taking place solely in Goon’s apartment. 

These characters are given life by an outstanding cast. Early, known mainly for his work on HBO’s “Search Party,” lends a slapstick physicality to Goon while still being humanistic. Think if Phillip Seymour Hoffman in “Along Came Polly” and Titus Burgess in “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” were put in a blender. Maybe that’s a bit reductive — I call Hoffman to mind only because Early is able to pull off a sad-sack misanthrope with a genuine empathy I haven’t seen anyone capture since Hoffman left our screens a decade ago. 

Harhash, the Palestinian model turned actor, lends a softness to his role without being underspoken. It is ultimately his journey, and his beauty belies a deeply resonant sadness about being forced away from one’s community and family for being queer. He can do so much with his voice and eyes, as he spends most of the movie confined to chairs. 

Hammel avoids the trappings of many directors who act, blending seamlessly into the narrative while still lending so much personality to the already stacked cast of comedic performers. Her NYMPHOWARS history serves her well, delivering witty dialogue about the reality of being trans (“I wanted to kill myself, so I did this, and it helped a little bit”) without being preachy or drab. There’s a rhythm to the film that gets hypercharged when she’s on-screen. 

To see trans artists like Hammel get support from a major indie studio like Neon is inspiring, especially when the film is as good as “Stress Positions.” In a recent interview with BrightWall/DarkRoom, fellow trans filmmaker Jane Schoenbrun stated “[these] three films by three white trans girls does not a trend make.” While their apprehension about declaring this a movement is understandable, I think it’s a step in the right direction that something like “Stress Positions” exists beyond the New York micro-neighborhood it was made.

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