STRESS POSITIONS (Sydney FF 2024) – Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

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COVID lockdown has hit New York City, and life for Terry Goon (John Early) is not going well. Freshly wounded from a recent divorce from a much older and wealthier man, Terry is broke and directionless, pouring his energies into caring for his 19-year-old Moroccan nephew Bahlul (Qaher Harhash) who has seriously injured his leg. They are staying in one of Terry’s ex-husband’s many properties, a temporary arrangement that only further compounds Terry’s feelings of disorientation. This is a feeling shared by others in his social circle, including his best friend Karla (Theda Hammel), an unemployed transgender lesbian who has her own relationship issues to contend with.

Directed and co-written by Hammel as well as starring her as the dazzlingly sharp-tongued and quick-witted Karla, that the filmmaker has a background in music comes as little surprise. Stress Positions feels like a movie that is orchestrated as much as directed, and Hammel’s extraordinary, intuitive grasp on the rhythms of everyday conversation are a thing of wonder, granting the film an extraordinary energy and almost palpable freshness.

Thematically the film takes bold, fearless swipes in the direction of the dominance of social media, the complexities of identity (be it related to gender, race, or age), and the minefield of interpersonal relationships, particularly in the pressure cooker of a global pandemic.

Stress Positions won my heart by being brave enough to make a film about a cast of characters who, on the whole, are largely unlikable; not exactly horrible, but it feels impressively adult to make a movie and not have a filmmaker feel they need to spoon-feed us with nice, soft, characters. It is a film that clearly gives zero fucks about who we do or don’t “identify” with, a refreshing change from the cloying sincerity of so much screen culture right now.

Despite – or perhaps even because – of this, it’s almost paradoxical that in a way, Stress Positions is the most connected I have felt to a film in a long time in terms of my own lived experience. Transcending the nuts and bolts of plot and character, the film reminded me on an almost visceral level of that strange experience most of us will go through at least once in our lives when, for whatever reason, we are simply surrounded by people we don’t necessarily like. It’s about the way that this can become a default setting, how this sort of poisons your own view of the world and yourself, and how that toxicity spreads, seeping into everything. Stress Positions is ultimately a simple reminder of the cyclic nature of things; no matter how bad things get, they won’t last forever.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a multi-award-winning film critic and author who has published nine books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema with an emphasis on gender politics, including the 2020 book ‘1000 Women in Horror, 1898-2018’ which was included on Esquire Magazine’s list of the best 125 books written about Hollywood. Alexandra is a contributing editor at Film International, a columnist at Fangoria, an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University, and a member of the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (LA, NYC, London).