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Sundance 2024 Review: Stress Positions – “Had a lot that it wanted to say”

John Early appears in Stress Positions by Theda Hammel, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | Photo by NEON.

The pandemic wasn’t easy on any of us.  Neither was it easy on Terry Goon (John Early) whose troubles are compounding.  He’s had to move into the party house of his soon-to-be ex-husband, Leo (John Roberts) and is still going through the divorce.  It’s a dump full of souvenirs from Leo’s escapades that comes with a strange upstairs neighbour named Coco (Rebecca F. Wright).  He’s also taking care of his 19-year-old nephew, Bahlul (Qaher Harhash) who broke his leg.  He’s a Moroccan model, and his presence in the basement of the house brings unwanted attention from Terry’s friends, especially as he is terrified of COVID.

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Soon his home is full of visitors just trying to get a glance, including his friend Karla (Theda Hammel, also directing) and her girlfriend Vanessa (Amy Zimmer).  A GrubHub delivery boy named Ronald (Faheem Ali) pops in and out of everyone’s lives with their food as if he is the only person delivering.  These are people all just trying to make it through each day, and an exasperated Terry, whose problems always seem to be worse than everyone else’s (at least in his opinion) is just doing his best.  He’s just not doing a very good job.

Stress Positions is the feature debut for writer-director (and composer!) Theda Hammel whose previous short film, My Trip to Spain also premiered at Sundance.  That film also happened to star Early, who I loved in the series Search Party.  Or should I say, loved to hate.  None of the characters in that series were particularly likeable, and I felt the same way here.  While Early is great as the frenzied Terry, he never becomes a sympathetic character.  There’s so much going on in Stress Positions that everyone just kind of gets lost in the shuffle.

Hammel achieves a lot with her frantic, barebones storytelling, but for some (aka, me) it seemed more disjointed and aimless than a cohesive comedic ensemble piece.  This satire of a very specific point in time, a time that many of us are probably ready to forget despite the virus still surging around us, comes with a lot of subtleties that are apt to get missed (I’m sure I missed plenty!) in the chaos. While I appreciate that this film is one of the very few that I think that never uses Zoom to communicate during its pandemic setting, the gas masks being worn and Terry’s frantic spraying of disinfectant on money, are gags that feel old.  We are not yet far away enough from this time to find these things funny.  There are a few moments of slapstick comedy that are amusing, but nothing that truly brought out the laughs for me.

The pandemic here is instead really just a way to get the characters together in one space, a trend I hope doesn’t continue.  I feel like Stress Positions had a lot that it wanted to say, but in the end there was no comprehensive narrative to bring the points to light.  There are some moments, in over-utilized voice-over, where Bahlul talks about his conservative mother and how he never felt himself or at peace.  Then there is Vanessa who has used Karla’s trans story as plot of her somewhat successful book.  There are issues of politics, identity, and racism running through the film but, like Terry himself, everything seems too frenetic to really take hold. While I appreciate Hammel’s talent (especially in front of the camera) and artistic ambitions, I think I just have to admit that this one is not for me.

Stress Positions premiered at the Sundance Film Festival January 18, 2024.  For more information go to

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