Sundance 2024: “Stress Positions” Is a Queer Farce With Bite and Depth

Drew Burnett Gregory is back at Sundance, reporting daily with queer movie reviews from one of the world’s most prestigious film festivals. Follow along for her coverage of the best in LGBTQ+ cinema and beyond. 

The two narrators in Theda Hammel’s debut feature Stress Positions each speak with the syntax of literary fiction. No one has told them they’re in a farce.

Whether literally or figuratively, everyone in this film is better at writing than they are at living. Or, maybe, we’ve become a world better at writing aka storytelling aka narrativizing than we are at living. Or, maybe, it’s absurd to make generalizations about our entire world based on a handful of toxic queers living in Brooklyn.

Stress Positions is about Terry Goon (John Early), a washed up party gay whose rich older husband has left him for an even younger man. It’s also about Terry’s 19 year old Moroccan American nephew Bahlul (Qaher Harhash) who is a model and is living in Terry’s (his husband’s) ramshackle brownstone because he is “very injured.” (He has a broken leg.) And, finally, it’s about Karla (Hammel), a bisexual (self-identified lesbian) trans woman in a relationship with a cis lesbian (Amy Zimmer) who wrote a successful book about her transition.

The film is bookended by narration from Karla, but it’s Bahlul we hear from most throughout. He’s pivoting from model to writer and we hear snippets from his life story that he’s jotting down in a little notebook. Is your life so interesting? Karla questions before informing Bahlul that fiction is freedom.

Is transness a sort of fiction? Does that make it untrue? “I wanted to kill myself and this sort of helped,” Karla states with the sardonic edge she delivers many of the film’s best one-liners. What kind of escape can the reinvention of transition provide? What will fall short?

For a film that is laugh-out-loud hilarious from beginning to end, there’s a lot of thematic density here. The satire of ignorant privileged Brooklynites is there for laughs, but underneath these (well-executed) easy jokes is something grander about the disconnect between people. And not just because it takes place in the summer of 2020.

Bahlul’s (white) mom raised him to believe his uncle Terry was evil. It’s fascinating to watch him discover the truth to be far less grand and far more pathetic — but maybe just as sinister. If being queer does not grant us a unique immorality or a unique moral superiority — if these are just stories people tell about us and we tell ourselves — then where does that leave us? To abandon the fictions is to confront the minutiae of our feelings and failures, to face the feelings and failures of the world around us.

For the characters in Stress Positions, the fiction of queerness (and even the fiction of nonfiction) are attempts to keep the world theoretical. Karla’s story is that she’s a lesbian — even if she lusts after just about every eligible boy she meets. How one labels their own sexuality doesn’t matter. But some of Karla’s self-narrativizing is not as harmless.

Ultimately, the way these characters engage with the world and their world is as performative as Terry disinfecting his food deliveries. He thinks it’s keeping him safe, but many of our greatest fictions are ones we believe ourselves to be fact.

Don’t let all my pondering mislead you. Again, this is a very funny movie. Most post-Old Hollywood American farce is a pastiche of that era. It’s thrilling to get a film that understands what made the comedy in those films work while discovering something wholly its own. The privileged Brooklyn setting may have people recalling mumblecore and its off-shoots, but this is far broader and far smarter than that. If anything it recalls early Almodòvar in its filtering of the genre through a new lens.

Since seeing Theda Hammel in her production of Wallace Shawn’s Marie and Bruce, it’s been clear she would approach the path of being a “Trans Artist” in a way uniquely her own. This film does not disappoint. It’s the clear work of a trans auteur, a writer/director/actor/composer who understands it’s as important to take formal risks as it is to entertain.

Fiction may be freedom, but not all fiction is free. Stress Positions is free.

Stress Positions is now streaming on the Sundance virtual platform.

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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and Knock LA. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 562 articles for us.


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