Chicago filmmaker Joe Swanberg premiered his third feature in three years during SXSW this week, Hannah Takes the Stairs, and just about filled the Paramount theater, which seats 1,200. It's a long way from his Kissing on the Mouth screening at SXSW, which I saw at the tiny Dobie theater two years ago. Like his previous films, Kissing on the Mouth and LOL, the film follows contemporary twentysomethings through ordinary and plausible situations. It's a low-key and enjoyable film with a cast consisting mostly of other indie filmmakers and writers.
Hannah (Greta Gerwig) seems to be drifting through life. She has a boyfriend, Mike (Mark Duplass) whom she seems to like, but suddenly breaks up with him because "he's the funny one. I want to be the funny one." She works for a production company of some sort -- I never quite understood what was going on over there -- with a pair of guys, Paul (Andrew Bujalski) and Matt (Kent Osborne). Paul is trying to negotiate a deal to publish a book based on his blog, while Matt is slightly older and more mature than the other two. After breaking up with Mike, Hannah more or less floats over to Paul, upsetting the office dynamic with their schmoopiness and later with their relationship difficulties. She turns to her roommate Rocco (Ry Russell-Young) and to Matt for solace.
Recounting the plot doesn't tell you much about this movie, though. The strength of Hannah Takes the Stairs is in the performances, which are quite realistic. You can actually believe that these people exist: maybe they're working next door to you, living in the apartment down the street, or you ran into some of them at a bar last weekend. The dialogue rings true, too. The only part that seemed artificial and movie-esque was the business with the trumpets, but it was irresistably sweet. The writing credits for this film include Swanberg and the primary members of the cast -- Swanberg continually stresses in interviews that much of the creative process behind this film is an ensemble effort.
I feel a little too old for this film; the only character even close to my age is probably Osborne's. Sometimes I wish Swanberg would include more of a variety of age or ethnicity in his films, but I worry that then the films might not retain his directorial style. I wanted to shake Hannah at times for the way she flits from one relationship to another, but then that's probably because I behaved like that in my twenties so I was identifying with her. I also like the way that Swanberg's films aren't afraid to show nudity in a non-erotic way.
Hannah Takes the Stairs isn't a standard narrative that you just sit back and enjoy mindlessly -- you have to put a little work into paying attention, sticking with a nontraditional plot structure, getting to know the variety of characters. But it's well worth the effort. I can't imagine the film getting a wide release in megaplexes nationwide, but I hope more people will get the opportunity to see this film outside of festivals, perhaps on DVD.