As I write this review, four of the five biggest films at the box offices have been nearly universally panned by the critics. As you read this review, no matter when that might be, the same is probably true. It's the tired lament of film reviewers everywhere that most everything that does well at the box office is insipid, vulgar, simpleminded garbage. Obviously there's a disconnect somewhere between viewers and reviewers, and obviously you already knew this, but I say this by way of introduction to this review.
Writer/Director Joe Swanberg's films are the antithesis of what you're likely to find at your local multiplex. They are generally reviled by viewers (IMDb scores of 5.0, 5.0, and 5.7 for his three feature films to date) and acclaimed by critics. This really is an odd state of affairs given that this 26-year-old filmmaker collaborates with other 20-somethings to make films for 20-somethings, about 20-somethings. How is it then that his films fail to resonate with young viewers but succeed with generally older critics?
Swanberg's films have a distinctive quality that many viewers may not warm to. Writer/Directors John Cassavetes and Mike Leigh have reputations for making outstanding films filled with memorable characters and vibrant dialogue through intense collaboration with their actors. Swanberg takes this collaborative process and goes one step further incorporating an unhurried degree of spontaneity that is largely unique to the age of micro-budget DV filmmaking. The result is dialogue that feels real, but consequently as small, ordinary, and mundane as any conversation you might overhear in a coffee shop. This honesty seems to appeal to reviewers tired of the artifice of the typical Hollywood script, but is a turn off to many viewers who regard such dialogue as self-indulgent and boring.
Hannah Takes the Stairs is probably best labeled a dramatic comedy, though the drama and the comedy are both slight. Hannah (Greta Gerwig) fumbles her way through three relationships during the film's short 83-minute runtime. Newly entered into the post-collegiate workforce, Hannah experiments with relationships the way some women experiment with hairstyles. She's not looking for a man to take care of her, or to complete her, but there is a fundamental dissatisfaction in her life that she is semiconsciously seeking to assuage.
The men entangled with Hannah are Matt (Kent Osborne) and Paul (Andrew Bujalski), senior writers at the television program that employs Hannah, and Mike (Mark Duplass), a slacker taking some time off from the world of work to explore hanging out about town. Bujalski and Duplass will be recognizable to viewers familiar with their work in front of and behind the camera in Funny Ha Ha (2002) and Mutual Appreciation (2005), and The Puffy Chair (2005), respectively.
Gerwig and Osborne share principal writing credit with Swanberg, and it is really the scenes between these two actors that are the film's high points. One scene particularly stands out. The nine-minute exchange occurs during Hannah's first visit to Matt's apartment. It begins casually with a discussion of windup toy animals and moves through Hannah asking about a collection of prescription pills, before settling into a poignantly honest discussion of Matt's medicated depression and Hannah's chronic dissatisfaction. To sum it up this way makes it sound trite, but it plays beautifully. It will also probably come as a surprise to nobody to learn that Osborne is really talking about his own experience with anti-depressants. How this scene resonates for the viewer will probably be determinative of how the viewer regards the film as a whole.
Viewers that enjoy glimpses behind the mask into the psyche of average fellow human beings will find plenty of splendid small moments to savor in Hannah Takes the Stairs. Viewers looking for action, intense drama, or big laughs will be bored.
Hannah Takes the Stairs is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1 and is enhanced for widescreen. Shot on DV, the film suffers from all the usual limitations of the format, but overall the image quality looks pleasing.
Optional subtitles in English for the hearing impaired and Spanish are appropriately sized, paced, and placed.
The disc provides a 2.0 audio track. Dialogue is uniform across both channels, though the soundtrack makes better use of the stereo sound. The audio is generally good though the soundtrack occasionally overpowers the dialogue.
The extras are fairly substantial, consisting of a commentary track with Swanberg, Gerwig and Osborne, the theatrical trailer, seven minutes of behind the scenes footage, some deleted bits, five SXSW Film Festival spots, and the short Thanks for the ADD! starring Gerwig and Osborne.
It's easy to dismiss a film like Joe Swanberg's Hannah Takes the Stairs as a bit of self-indulgent navel-gazing. Nothing much happens: there's no action and not much that passes for either drama or comedy. In the course of looking for something or someone to relieve her generalized sense of chronic dissatisfaction, Hannah tries on a few sexual relationships, and that's about it. No big consequences follow.
What's worth seeing are the small, honest moments between these young actors channeled through the half masks of their characters. For the small group of viewers out there to whom this sounds appealing, Hannah Takes the Stairs is highly recommended.