Between The Sweet East and, to some extent, American Fiction, cinephiles seem to be increasing their appetite for politically incorrect commentary. Even if you are not one such moviegoer, Stress Positions, the feature debut from Theda Hammel, does not fucking care. That’s an asset before it’s a problem, but its aimless narrative and discordant visual styles undercut this film’s sharpness.

Hammel also stars as Karla, a narcissistic trans woman in a resentment-ridden relationship with a lesbian novelist. The film primarily takes place in the brownstone where Karla’s friend Terry (John Early) is riding out the early stages of COVID with his nephew Bahlul (Qaher Harhash). Bahlul is a 19-year-old Moroccan model, and Terry’s gay circle––including his slutty ex-husband Leo (John Roberts)––is all atwitter at the news. Everyone is desperate to lay eyes on this model, who’s likewise eager to meet people besides Terry. That’s bad news for Terry, who is gask-masks-on, Lysoling-the-air levels of pandemic paranoid.

Nevertheless these characters collide, collecting a hapless GrubHub deliveryman named Ronald (Faheem Ali, who co-wrote the script with Hammel) in their wake. Despite nods to the protests of that summer, some deeply un-woke chaos ensues. Drunk on grappa, Karla says she transitioned because she wanted to kill herself, and so far it’s “sort of” helped. Much is clunkily made of Bahlul’s ethnicity. Ronald drops an anti-trans slur roughly three times in one sentence. The climax involves peeping toms, lots of wigs, and the harrowing fate of a Theragun.

But there’s little holding all this campy wit together. Bahlul, who narrates much of the film, is a puzzling central figure. He’s the straight man to everyone else’s erratic antics, but he’s also conflict-resistant. He goes along with Terry’s hysteria and Karla’s forwardness easily, even seeming enchanted by her––although between mispronunciations of Arabic and off-color remarks about the Middle East, Karla isn’t doing a great job at being enchanting. He offers no friction. We learn about Bahlul’s origins and his relationship to Terry in voiceover, but these facts almost feel irrelevant to the narrative. If Bahlul is feeling rejected or angry for any reason, he certainly doesn’t show it––at least not until something inexcusable happens.

Stress Positions‘ images likewise make a jarring jump from humdrum to dramatic. The first two-thirds appear to be shot with little artifice, adopting a kind of comedy-web-series starkness, but the last act devolves into heavily lit tableaux. This, too, is baffling when the earlier style is a much better match for narrative tone.

Still, Stress Positions feels more at home at Sundance than its encroaching, high-profile fare. Its scrappiness is what brings the charm à la the early work of Madeleine Olnek. Random attempts at depth detract from the final product rather than add to it. Nobody should have the time to set up gels in the middle of a proper free-for-all.

Stress Positions premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival and will be released by NEON.

Grade: C+

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