‘Stress Positions’ Review: Noise Undercuts Nuance In Theda Hammel’s Neon Dramedy – Sundance Film Festival

Theda Hammel’s latest dramedy at Neon, Stress Positions, stars Hammel, John Early, Qaher Harhash, Amy Zimmer, Faheem Ali and Rebecca F. Wright. It follows Bahlul, a queer Moroccan-American model that everyone wants to meet. While moments emerge showing the glimmer of an insightful character study, the film quickly dissolves into an endurance test drowned out by superficial noise. One must tip the cap to Hammel’s sheer feat of micro-budget production, but her organic style choices bewilder more than enlighten.

The film follows Bahlul (Harhash), a 20-year old spending his time in recovery from a broken leg with his uncle Terry (Early) in Brooklyn. Terry is not Moroccan but American and white, and they are family by marriage. The injured Bahlul meets a cast of eccentric characters including Terry’s best friend Karla (Hammel); Karla‘s girlfriend Vanessa (Zimmer); Terry’s husband Leo (John Roberts); Ronald (Ali), the local GrubHub delivery guy; and Coco (Wright), the woman living in the apartment above them.

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Interacting proves tough for the young model as all of these people have strong, personal views about the world around them, and firmly plant themselves in the things they think they know. Through all the chatter and chaos, Bahlul works to understand his purpose, as he recounts his childhood while writing a book about his life.

Stress Positions is an apt title as the film very much thrives on stress, mess and being all over the place. This energy transfers to how the film is shot, with angles that focus on chaotic moments that make little sense. For example, the film starts with two minutes of exposition from Karla, while the camera focuses on a blond wig, blowing in the wind, while sitting in the gutter. Why?

Jumbled voice-overs plague Stress Positions, toggling awkwardly between characters — are these Bahlul’s thoughts or Karla’s? With no identifiers, detangling the narration requires too much energy. Simultaneous voice-overs also compete with pivotal scenes, further scrambling which moments demand focus. The film tries to convey an empowering message about speaking truth amid life’s noise. Through Bahlul’s internal dialogue that the audience hears through voice-over, the narrative reveals he is writing a book about his childhood, and he looks to find power in recalling his memories.

But whatever lesson emerges only after listening to the absurd rhetoric of Terry, Karla and Vanessa; their closed-minded caricatures are overbearing to the point it obscures the voices in true need of amplification, and I couldn’t extend any energy to care about his journey because it was being zapped by the loud, wrong, ignorant and messy court jesters that surround him. It makes me wonder if this is what Brooklyn has turned into? Transplants from Larchmont, NY moving to NYC with their microaggressions, swearing their pain and suffering is more intense than everyone else?

Independent filmmaking poses immense challenges. That Hammel managed not only to direct, write and edit (with Erin Dewitt) but even secure distribution for an original idea marks a formidable feat and there is so much room for potential here. However, a lost central focus amid chaotic plotting dilutes any impact and foils the subversive revelation for which it aims.

Title: Stress Positions
Festival (Section): Sundance (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Distributor: Neon
Director-screenwriter: Theda Hammel
Cast: John Early, Qaher Harhash, Theda Hammel, Amy Zimmer, Faheem Ali, John Roberts
Running time: 1 hr 35 min

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