Hannah Takes The Stairs

Hannah Takes The Stairs


Reviewed by: Robyn Jankel

Hannah Takes The Stairs is an entirely improvised film about a young woman trying to work out what she wants from life as she ploughs her way through three short-term relationships. She stands at the bus stop a lot, plays the trumpet in the bath, wears brightly-coloured knickers and tries to be funny but isn’t. And... well, that’s it, really.

Director, cameraman, editor and producer Joe Swanberg presents us with a “mumblecore” movie; no scripts, wonky camera angles, and a very basic, spontaneous storyline focusing on everyday life as created by the actors themselves. As a movement it may have a place in cinema history, but Hannah Takes The Stairs does the already uninspiring concept no favours.

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Mumblecore films revolve around normal people, in normal situations but this is dull, lifeless and offers no reason to continue watching past the first five minutes. Films of any genre, age or intention should aspire to invoke an emotion – any emotion! – in their audience. When the only one it inspires is boredom, you know there’s something wrong.

To be fair, I wasn’t just bored; I was also irritated. This is meant to be a naturalistic film and yet elements of it are so far-fetched that I almost walked out in protest. Hannah (Greta Gerwig) is a recent graduate (a fact which I should point out, I only cottoned on to when I read the production notes. There is no mention in the film – at least not whilst I was awake to hear it). She lives in a flat with her friend Rocco (Ry Russo-Young), who appears to be an artist of some sort. She works for two screenwriters who, between them, are responsible for a sitcom which actually appears to be marginally successful. She has sex with pretty much every man she meets.

As a recent graduate myself, I can categorically confirm this represents a laughable departure from real life, and I’m not just referring to the dearth of available men in south-west London. Once you escape from university, waving your Arts degree in your triumphant and slightly drunken fist, it’s hard enough to find a job as an office temp, let alone a position in a creative industry – and an influential position at that.

Hannah Takes The Stairs is supposed to be a realistic window on a genuine person’s life and yet this recent graduate is able to afford a two-bedroom flat. As impoverished ex-students, my friends and I can barely stretch to rent a shoebox-sized bedroom in a tiny house at the grotty end of Hammersmith. Hannah sleeps on a mattress on the floor and washes dishes by hand in a dilapidated kitchen, but it’s too little, too late; Swanson is shutting the stable door after the horse has already taken up residence in an impossibly over-budget home.

My other issue is with the filming. Yes, the budget is non-existent, but tripods are cheap, and resting the equipment on a handy chair even more so. Does the director honestly think that by shaking the camera around like a demented monkey, he is somehow perpetrating the myth of “realism” and generating an “indie” look that would be lost with motionless camerawork?

These films are supposed to be a secret window on real people’s lives with the camera representing another pair of eyes – yours, the viewer’s – peeping in. Yet the last time I was engaged in a conversation, I didn’t find myself leaping up and down and jerking my head from side to side. Swanberg doesn’t need to remind us his film is cheap and amateur. We could hardly forget.

Rather than maintaining the authenticity to which he is aspiring, each time he bounces around or zooms in irrelevantly on a pointless object – roughly every five seconds – one is reminded that this is not real life after all. Nowadays, not even home videos using ancient camcorders are this jerky, so there’s no excuse for making the entire piece look as though he’s suffering from advanced-stage Parkinson’s.

This is the kind of film that will receive rave reviews from pretentious critics and poncy awards at festivals you’ve never heard of. Meanwhile, average filmgoers like you and I watch it and wonder: what on earth was that? I don’t understand what this film is about, what it is trying to say, or who it is trying to reach. Hannah is presented as a 20-something who is not only typical of her age, but also highly intelligent, yet she can barely string two words together. She expects her life to have a global impact but comes across as little more than a navel-gazing, whiney brat with a low boredom threshold and no concern for other people’s emotions.

If only my friends and I had the jobs we desired, flats to share and carousels of men to choose from. If only our blogs were being made into books. If only we had boyfriends who would take us to the beach on a whim. Am I feasting on sour grapes? Probably! Because not only is Hannah ungrateful for what she has, she discards it willy-nilly and then complains that she doesn’t know what she wants. Yet the filmmakers describe her as “lovely”. Maybe they’re trying to remind young people of how lucky they are, but I doubt it.

I’ll grudgingly admit Hannah Takes The Stairs offers an antidote to sweeping epics, polished action films and squeaky-clean romances. Unfortunately, it’s not a good advert for going back to basics. The physical realness of its stars is commendable and something rarely witnessed on screen these days.

The HD is unforgiving, especially since they wear little or no makeup, and it’s comforting to see acne scars and cellulite in such magnified detail on other people. The men boast spare tyres, man boobs, baggy grey pants and old-fashioned glasses. The girls have ill-fitting bras, visible roots and bad skin. Magazines tell us all the time not to believe that Hollywood perfection is real but it does take a film like this to hammer the point home. Unfortunately that in itself is not reason enough to make it.

Of course, the filmmakers would probably argue the whole point is that there is no point; that they were simply having a laugh, sitting around and creating a piece which is utterly directionless just as life in general is utterly directionless. In fact, even that is an analysis too far. It’s not deep, they’ll say, because most young people aren’t that deep.

There was no impetus, no reason, no intended goal, no moral, no lessons, no catharsis, no education but they never meant there to be any of those things, so it’s okay. Or perhaps they really did think it was deep, which is even more disturbing. It looks like a home movie - but if it were yours, you’d record over it.

Reviewed on: 12 Jan 2009
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Hannah Takes The Stairs packshot
Mumblecore film about a graduate and her love life.
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Director: Joe Swanberg

Writer: Joe Swanberg, Greta Gerwig, Kent Osborne, Andrew Bujalski, Mark Duplass, Ry Russo-Young, Kevin Bewersdorf

Starring: Greta Gerwig, Kent Osborne, Andrew Bujalski, Ry Russo-Young, Mark Duplass, Todd Rohal, Tipper Newton, Kris Williams, Ivan Albertson, Kevin Bewersdorf

Year: 2007

Runtime: 83 minutes

Country: US


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