de facto film reviews 2 stars

Imagine a 95-minute lecture, from someone who isn’t quite as insightful as they believe themselves to be. A lecture which is a bit funny at times, occasionally gives you whiplash, sometimes makes you think and is just as often annoying, obnoxious and convinced of itself in the most condescending way. That, in a nutshell, is Stress Positions, the debut film from director Theda Hammel. Set in Brooklyn, New York, during the early days of the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown, the story revolves around a group of gay, lesbian and transgender family and friends.

Courtesy NEON

Terry is caring for his nephew, Bahlul, an injured former model, who is sought after among his friends, as both a curiosity and, apparently, as a means of demonstrating their need to constantly be heard and seen. Demonstrating. It does not matter what. As long as these characters are talking, they are saying, well, not usually much. At times, the film seems to be examining what horrible people think, and at other times, cheering on the horrid behavior. There is real cruelty in this film, disguised as some sort of liberation, a freedom of spirit, where any and all will be dragged kicking and screaming to epiphanies only the writer/director is wise enough to give unto the audience. In the next instant, the film has moments of real profundity.

As Terry, John Early is both vital to the film and a huge drawback. His Terry is the ultimate cliché of a gay male in New York City, except he’s living in 2020 and seems to be, in some regards, a man of the 1970s and 1980s. Replete with disco ball. Seriously. There is a sequence in which you watch as he drags a gigantic, glittering ball out of his Greenpoint brownstone (which he once shared with his husband, Joe, who has left him and wants a divorce) and onto the street to trash it. His closest friend, apparently, is the obnoxious Karla, a male to female transgender person, played by the writer/director of the film, in perhaps the film’s only truly decent performance.

The sexuality of these characters is mentioned because it is almost all the film is about, and in ways which eventually cease to be either interesting or illuminating. Indeed, at times it seems the film really does believe what the one character does, which is that everyone is the same and those not accepting this truth, are lying to themselves. This is not Pose, the extraordinary series on FX that ran for three seasons, about the rise of AIDS in the LGBT community of 80s and 90s NYC, nor is it Tangerine, the “filmed on an iphone” indy masterpiece. I mention both works because they are recent entries about topics and themes, but they avoid the condescending tone this work, intentionally or otherwise, occasionally veers into.

There are so many narrative, creative dead ends in this work, and so much confusion-both intentionally and because the filmmakers are very inexperienced at a project of this size-that you would not be blamed walking away scratching your head. Who was whom and what was when, why and did we even care? Terry is not someone we want to spend time with, and he is not given a chance to grow. Nobody is, and that perhaps goes to an underlying problem of the film: it concerns a group of people who believe they are perfect and nobody can tell them differently, which becomes aggravating only moments into the film. Every other scene is a slapstick, screwball explosion of dialogue or physical gags. Two genres which do not work well for this reviewer, unless handled by an absolute master of the form. The rest of the film is much quieter, and filled with voice over narration-an iffy proposition at the best of times-and it is here where some of the genius of the arrogance and ignorance of the characters begins to play out, yet in the end, did the film mean to have that moment show them in that light?

Courtesy NEON

I will be interested in seeing other works from this creative team, as this is a misfire that has many elements which should work but just fall short, either because it cannot get out of its way or because it elects to explore something far less involving. Instead, we have a film about a fusspot who cannot connect with anyone, surrounded by people who are telling him this, screaming it, in fact, and yet doing everything they can to drive others away. If the intent of the work was to examine ways in which we isolate ourselves without recognizing the process by which we accomplish it, then that would be something. Instead, it appears the work is about how we are all better off alone and doing our own thing, and if we can hurt others along the way, that is fair, right and commendably something to aspire to. Yet, this is not a bad film. There is stuff in here which may work better for some than others. Perhaps I am not the right age for this, as this seems to have a very “anyone over thirty is the enemy” vibe to it. It is disheartening to see potential stalled, ignored or damaged at nearly every turn. Ultimately, it is not so much the quality but the style of the film which irked this reviewer. Mileage, as such, will vary.

Stress Positions is now playing in limited release.