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Review: Hannah Takes the Stairs

At what cost, naturalism?

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Hannah Takes the Stairs
Photo: IFC Films

At what cost, naturalism? Hannah Takes the Stairs, helmed by Joe Swanberg and starring many of his fellow mumblecore indie filmmaker friends, features a host of believably offhand, unaffected performances led by Greta Gerwig as the titular Hannah, a post-collegiate twentysomething restlessly bouncing from one unsatisfactory boyfriend to another. Yet this lack of pretense, partly the byproduct of Swanberg’s reliance on improvisation—which is itself an outgrowth of his no-budget, DIY techniques—is also its Achilles’ heel, as it lends the director’s latest a vapidity that’s hard to ignore.

As with the prior work of Swanberg and his peers (including Mark Duplass and Andrew Bujalski, who costar as two of Hannah’s three beaus), Hannah Takes the Stairs is primarily concerned with that cusp-of-adulthood condition composed of aimlessness, confusion, discontentment, and ennui that these filmmakers intimately understand but is conveyed here via a setup in dire need of a sturdier situational, character, and narrative foundation. This isn’t to say that the problem is the absence of a conventional plot, but rather that Swanberg’s depiction of Hannah idly chatting with her roommate (Ry Russo-Young), acting squirmy with boyfriends, and lackadaisically walking the streets elicits little emotional response since the director has barely bothered crafting anything resembling an interior life for his protagonist.

Because we know next to nothing about her other than that she works for a TV production company, writes plays in her spare time, and craves a medicinal pill for her “chronic dissatisfaction,” Hannah’s identifiable traits feel like constructions rather than expected outgrowths of her everyday life, so that when Kent Osborne’s Matt tells her at one point, “I don’t even know what you’re sad about,” it’s easy to relate. Even if his unassuming staging is matched by obvious handheld zooms into close-ups as well as too much self-satisfied cuteness (see the construction-papered opening credits with the amateurish trumpet rendition of the “1812 Overture”), Swanberg, within individual scenes, captures reasonably perceptive truths about communication and love. Overall, though, he seems a bit lost on how exactly to answer Bujalski’s question, “How do you make drama out of abstract ideas?”

Cast: Great Gerwig, Kent Osborne, Andrew Bujalski, Mark Duplass, Ry Russo-Young, Kevin Bewersdorf Director: Joe Swanberg Screenwriter: Greta Gerwig, Kent Osborne, Andrew Bujalski, Mark Duplass, Ry Russo-Young, Kevin Bewersdorf Distributor: IFC First Take Running Time: 83 min Rating: NR Year: 2007 Buy: Video

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