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‘Stress Positions’ Review: John Early Is Brilliant in a COVID Comedy That Sees Millennials for Who They Really Are

The summer of 2020 shouldn’t project beautiful memories onto the brain maps of those who endured it, but Theda Hammel’s anxiety-addled screwball feature debut “Stress Positions,” set around that COVID Fourth of July in New York, asks you to relive the scary days of sheltering in place, banging pots and pans in solidarity with health care workers, and social distancing whenever it was convenient or made you look like you stood for something.

“Stress Positions” mines the gap between the dark bookend of events that shaped millennial lives — September 11 and the pandemic — and that between liberal-posturing millennials and a Gen Z with a less fussy, more hopeful worldview. Hammel’s muses and emissaries on either side of the dichotomy in a comedy swirling with ideas are comedian John Early as a gay soon-to-be-divorcee and Qaher Harhash as his nephew, a 19-year-old Moroccan model with identity-shifting questions of his own. Here is a movie that sees a hapless set of self-obsessed millennials who came of age out of liberal arts colleges and the internet for who they really are.

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This caustic Brooklyn-set ensemble comedy awash in discourses around gender, social justice, and American ignorance of the Middle East is an energetic interrogation of what that kind of film — in other words, stuff that’s often very much the province of a Sundance indie — looks like in 2023. Early’s Terry Goon is a once-idealist turned politically indifferent basket case splitting up with his husband Leo (John Roberts), who’s left his shambling Brooklyn brownstone in Terry’s care while Leo runs off to Berlin in search of ketamine and other trade. (A great line later sees one character describe Fire Island, where Terry and Leo got married, as “a beach retreat for the children of Sodom.”) Trans filmmaker/writer Hammel casts herself as Carla, an ambitionless bodyworker in a foundering relationship with a lesbian named Vanessa Ravel (Amy Zimmer), whom Carla has accused of stealing her life story of transition as fodder for Vanessa’s debut novel. But it’s Carla who now enjoys the spoils of that book’s success, living rent-free in Vanessa’s apartment.

The 19-year-old and very beautiful Bahlul (Harhash) is Terry’s nephew, now convalescing with a broken leg in a brownstone whose own layout becomes as stress-inducing to navigate for the characters as it does the audience. Bahlul is the only son of Terry’s sister Abigail, shown only onscreen in fragmented home videos who, after fleeing the U.S. decades ago, converted to Islam, and returned to the U.S. with hate in her heart toward the Western world. The film’s slippery, though at times frustratingly overexpository, narration slides from Carla’s own to Bahlul’s as he explains his complicated family history.

“Stress Positions” packs a crazy gaggle of characters into a tight 90 minutes, expanding the film’s entropic little universe in providing three dimensions to nearly all introduced, everyone bouncing like speedy atoms off each other, including Grubhub courier Ronald (Faheem Ali, who shares a story credit with Hammel), who Carla seduces. The film’s commentary on immigrants forced to submit themselves to the gig economy is only skin-deep, but “Stress Positions” mostly succeeds in chewing off so much that any and all digressions from its core characters could risk shaking the focus too much.

Everyone but Bahlul — far more unflappable than his minders, and he doesn’t judge when everyone continues to make the mistake of misidentifying Morocco as a Middle Eastern country — is on the precipice of falling utterly apart. Carla, as so many of us did in the deep dog days of the pandemic, has taken to day-drinking to numb her boredom when not meddling with others’ lives or participating vaguely in protest (“we’re occupying,” she tells Terry when entreating him to join her at city hall, but for what the film never says though we can assume it’s related to the murder of George Floyd given the particulars of this COVID period piece).

When Bahlul asks her why she transitioned, Carla, in a hilarious and increasingly slurry grappa-soaked monologue, says, “I wanted to kill myself, and this helped,” a painfully funny line that rings with the real misery of uncertain identity in a wishy-washy world. Editor Erin DeWitt and cinematographer Arlene Muller create an atmosphere that never stops to breathe between panic attacks, especially as “Stress Positions” starts to feel like one big long one in desperate need of a Xanax or at least a session of four-quadrant breathing.

“Stress Positions” leaves unturned no hollow stone of millennial ideologies that now border on self-parody when stacked up against the category-eschewing sensibilities of the younger Generation Z, who here make a fool out of their forbearers. Vanessa is aggressively vegan, which is seemingly all she stands for, while Carla and Terry have a lot of thoughts about the “Arab world” but can’t name who actually orchestrated 9/11 and where Kabul is situated on a map. Bahlul does not make his politics the definition of his identity, a gesture seemingly the province of his millennial elders, and look how that turned out? They’re too caught up in their own neuroses and narcissistic bullshit to be politically committed to anything genuinely. Eventually, Bahlul becomes the heart of “Stress Positions,” as he forms a sweet connection with a chain-smoking upstairs neighbor (Rebecca F. Wright) with a voyeuristic agenda of her own.

Hammel and Early make for a wickedly funny pair, playing off each other’s misanthropy and deftly personifying what a long-term friendship that started a decade before in college now looks like in the 30s: “Not everyone is trans!” Terry screams at Carla, in a moment that feels designed to rile up corners of the audience (certainly not the target viewership here, and unlikely to see this film anyway) who will roll their eyes at the fact that literally every character in “Stress Positions” is queer in some way, something Hammel’s sharp script both celebrates and critiques.

John Early, first through his TV work as a quippy pop culturally literate New York gay in “Search Party” and his self-effacing standup, now again proves that he may truly be the voice of his generation (at least the cis white gay ones in the room). Here, he makes his body as much an instrument as his wit, literally flailing as his life crumbles around him, frantically applying Purell, Lysoling his groceries, wearing a garish respirator in the company of all around him. Terry is running in place — quite literally so on an exercise bike, sweatily, in the basement each night — but Early makes his existential inertia always feel like it’s compellingly headed some place, and that is a doomy kind of catharsis.

You wouldn’t be wrong to feel like at turns “Stress Positions” lays it on thick with social commentary and even overwhelms the audience with talky mouthpieces who all represent the far-flung quadrants of the issues at hand, whether immigration, globalization, sexuality, race, or lazy liberalism. But in its wryly amusing self-awareness at all turns, the film actively and relentlessly lampoons the very language and gesturing we all affect in trying to broach the political maelstrom of identity politics.

But all along, the film is carefully layering its cracked cast and meandering anecdotes toward a profoundly satisfying conclusion, even if “Stress Positions” feels like it leaves us and its characters hanging in the middle of its own unfinished sentence. There’s a Chekhov’s massage gun throughout the film — how applied in vain it is by the characters onto themselves as their only balm for relief from their own physically realizing anxieties — that brings the events cascading toward a chaotic climax where everyone’s positions are brought out into the light for what they are: phoneys, but real phoneys, and always headed for self-made disaster anyway.

Grade: B+

“Stress Positions” premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Neon will distribute the film in the U.S. later this year.

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