Movie Review
Hannah Takes the Stairs
2007
Director: Joe Swanberg
Cast: Greta Gerwig, Kent Osborne, Andrew Bujalski
B+


like many films of its ilk, Hannah Takes the Stairs lacks a strong framework. Some of the material may be slowly re-assembled by the unconscious, but upon first viewing, much is left to develop in the mind of the viewer. With no background, a camera frequently thrust in the actors’ faces, and little plot beyond that revealed through dialogue, the motivations of the characters (often unclear even to them) fit together, if at all, only in retrospect. Thus it seems believable when director Joe Swanberg says that he and the actors improvised much of the dialogue, developing the material daily and editing footage each night, so that most of the project was finished in only one month. And when you realize that each main cast member, excepting Greta Gerwig, has directed at least one film, a strategy like that makes a lot of sense.

The scenario is rather similar to Andrew Bujalski's Funny Ha-Ha: Charming but slightly confused young woman gets involved in various ways with three young men, with vaguely unpleasant results. Hannah, here, is much more manipulative than Kate Dollenmayer's Marnie. Like much of Swanberg's work, the film is very sexually frank and focuses on unhappiness in romantic relationships seemingly caused by emotional immaturity. Hannah slips boyfriends on and off as if shopping for a new pair of shoes, never finding fulfillment.

The film begins with a shot of her in the shower with Mike, a.k.a. Boyfriend #1 (Duplass). Mike has just left his job to spend some time focusing on "doing nothing," and invites Hannah to spend the day at the beach with him, although she claims she needs to show up for work. Her ambivalence toward spending time with him is hilariously expressed through an aborted cell phone call and some effective deep staging.


A current of pessimism and unhappiness flows through the film, from Mike's job- and music-related malaise, to Hannah's "chronic dissatisfaction," admitted while discussing Matt's (Kent Osborne) anti-depressant medication with him in his apartment. Paul (Bujalski) seems the most successful of the core group of characters, though his potential book deal seems to consist largely of fielding vague phone calls from Marvin, his agent in New York. And, of course, Hannah dumps him.

Hannah suggests at one point that she'd prefer to be back to college, a not uncommon sentiment for her peer group, longing to return to a familiar environment with limited risks and rewards. Perhaps she realizes that her life to this point hasn't adequately prepared her for the responsibilities of adulthood. Swanberg's characters often seem at bit adrift on the sea of post-college life; for example, his own character in the Web series, Young American Bodies, goes into a tizzy when his roommate announces that she's moving out at the end of their lease. His character in Kissing on the Mouth collects interviews with other twentysomethings on the subject of marriage. The discussions don't center exactly on the possibility/probability of marriage in the near future, but rather a sense of bafflement that anybody could make such decisions of such consequence before the age of thirty. (Note: Swanberg and frequent collaborator, Kris Williams, who married this past June, seem not to be affected by such a malaise.)

That feeling of youthful inexperience seemingly carries over to the style of the film as well. Most scenes are shot indoors with bright white backgrounds, tight framing, and little movement. The soundtrack remains largely unspoiled by background music, although a couple of trumpets, played by Hannah and Matt, figure into the mix toward the end of the film. Compared to the rest of Swanberg's work, though, this film focuses more on dialogue and relationship dynamics than the intimate one-shots and silent depictions of loneliness and confusion found elsewhere in Swanberg's work. It'll be interesting to see how style and form will evolve for the mumblecore set (so many of whom are involved here) as, presumably, their characters age and mature with time.

Hannah Takes the Stairs is currently playing in limited release.



By: Andy Slabaugh
Published on: 2007-08-28
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