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John Early and Theda Hammel attend the the 2024 Sundance Film Festival “Stress Positions" premiere

“Stress Positions” Mines Health Anxieties for Comedy

PARK CITY, UTAH – JANUARY 18: (L–R) John Early and Theda Hammel attend the 2024 Sundance Film Festival “Stress Positions” premiere at Library Center Theatre on January 18, 2024, in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Chad Salvador/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)

By Annie Lyons

Stress Positions might technically be a COVID-19 movie. But filmmaker Theda Hammel wants you to cast aside your assumptions about what exactly that strange recent genre entails in her feature directorial debut, which premiered on January 18 at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. 

“The threat of contamination is one of the big issues at stake in the movie,” Hammel explains in the film’s post-premiere discussion at the Library Center Theatre in Park City, Utah. “COVID is mentioned one time, but it’s very clear, to me at least, that the [main] character is afraid of a moral, social contamination. The idea is of being afraid of one’s neighbors, afraid of strangers, and even afraid of one’s friends in the event that they manifest something that could be morally, virally dangerous.” 

Adding to her thoughts, cast member John Early chimes in, saying, “I think Theda really understood that there was such screwball potential with COVID. Mythic potential.”

Screwball sounds about right. Inducing anxiety and laughter alike, the U.S. Dramatic Competition film follows the high-strung Terry Goon (Early), a 30-something man who takes up refuge in his soon-to-be ex-husband’s house during the pandemic’s early days. An already tense time intensifies further with the arrival of his estranged, injured nephew Bahlul (Qaher Harhash), a 19-year-old Moroccan model. 

Though Terry tries to look after Bahlul, he can barely keep himself together — and that’s not even mentioning Karla (Hammel), Terry’s equally chaotic best friend. As Bahlul explores his own identity and complicated relationship with his mother, he’s met with a frequent lack of understanding from Terry, who initially assumes Morocco must be part of the Middle East.

Qaher Harhash, John Early, and Theda Hammel attend the 2024 Sundance Film Festival premiere of "Stress Positions"
(L–R): Qaher Harhash, John Early, and Theda Hammel. (Photo by Chad Salvador/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)

“Sorry, now we’re just railroading [the Q&A],” Hammel says to audience laughter as she continues an impassioned answer about the thematic layers of the film. “What is being represented is a layer of ignorance. It’s not like a fact-finding movie where you go out, and you get a look at the real world. For somebody in this position, the ‘stress position’ of being Terry Goon at that moment, there is no real world. There is no outside the house. There is no encounter with the Middle East or even with the street!” 

She continues, “The world is coming at him in this house, but somehow he is not growing from this experience.”

Noting that he’s Palestinian, Harhash recalls his surprise at reading the script. “I saw so many Arabic words, and I was like, ‘Wait, who wrote this?’” he says. As he got to know Hammel and her perspective, he “started to think, ‘Oh, Theda’s not showing the Middle East as a safe haven, but she’s showing that there’s so much misinterpretation on the Middle East.”

To further answer Harhash’s rhetorical question, Hammel is a filmmaker who wears many hats; she served as a director, writer, actor, editor, and composer for Stress Positions. “It was a desperate situation, and things had to get done,” she explains of her willingness to take on all those roles. 

Referring to her performance as Karla, she continues, “If you have a trans lady antihero who sort of swaggers around and does bad, it seems maybe more generous not to impose that on another trans actor, so you can take it on yourself and bear the brunt of it.” Her words are met with more audience laughter. Pulling quintuple duty sounds strenuous, but just like with Stress Positions, there’s humor to be found in the metaphorical pressure cooker.

To see more of the magic from the 2024 Festival, click here.