"Hannah Takes the Stairs"

Dennis Harvey November 27, 2007

Literacy rates are plummeting — clearly our increasingly test-oriented, teacher-punitive ill-funded public education system is failing today’s youth, particularly in lower-income neighborhoods. But a (relatively) old fart like me also wonders if even comparatively well educated, middle-class kids have a less-than-firm grip on the English language these days. They are so, like, whatever. Still, youth is youth — forever stumbling in the wilderness of new things like love, relationships, sex, employment, careerism, and … stuff. Such formative experiences are always interesting because they are so fraught with the intensity of discovery.

The intersection between “interesting” and “inarticulate” is practically the whole gist of an emerging genre dubbed “mumblecore,” which label no doubt its major practitioners hate.

These are frequently improv-based, digitally shot, minimally budgeted seriocomedies about twentysomethings stumbling through, you know, relationship stuff. They are like audiovisual eavesdropping, Cassavetes reloaded for the Whatever Generation. They are massively indulgent, irritating and aimless, or fantastically real, insightful and uncontrived. Either response is totally legitimate; these movies are totally a matter of viewer taste, mood, perspective.

“Hannah Takes the Stairs,” which opens at the Red Vic this Friday, is the perfect case in point. It’s a very casual portrait of Hannah (Greta Gerwig), who is young, smart, and cute in a sorta punky, slightly androgynous, peroxide-blonde way. She works at developmental TV company where at least a couple of the pretty-damn-geeky male bosses are crushing on her. When her own slightly older, almost-30 boyfriend (Mark Duplass), quits his job to slack full-time, Hannah’s restlessness soon results in his being cut loose. She dives into a new relationship with Paul (Andrew Bujalski), while also sending & receiving signals that relate to fellow workmate Matt (Kent Osborne). There’s nothing simple about this triangle, but there’s not much complexly detailed about it, either. Director Joe Swanberg simply lets the improvised scenes go where they will, each utterly credible in their awkwardness if variably revealing of character.

This might be a recipe for meandering torment, but it’s sharply edited and gamely played enough to hold attention. The big question is: Will you care what happens to these people? I enjoyed “Hannah Takes the Stairs,” which is sort of an all-star mumblecore effort: Duplass was in the utterly great “Puffy Chair,” which only semiqualified as mumblecore; Swanberg previously directed “LOL” and “Kissing on the Mouth;” Bujalski directed prior mumbly faves “Mutual Appreciation” and “Funny Ha Ha.”

But it’s still the kinda video-verite vagueness that can’t resonate as deeply as more formally sculpted relationship films — the current “Margo at the Wedding” being an outstanding example of fine craftsmanship within a seemingly loose, intimate narrative context. “I tend to leave destruction in my wake,” an unusually verbose Hannah finally confides at a meltdown point, to the person who’ll most likely be confused by her offer of vulnerability. We feel her pain…but where does it come from? Is it genuinely empathetic, self-pitying, or a role-play even she can’t recognize as such?

She’s as enigmatically ambiguous as the troubled souls Monica Vitti used to play in Antonioni films. Yet while Vitti came off as a beautiful blank surface onto which profound directorial ideas were projected, Gerwig’s Greta is a shallow pool in which very little beyond indecision is reflected, and emotions grow thick but useless, like algae. And needless to say, Antonioni was a cinematic poet — Swanberg is more a transcriptionist. These are people you might very well know. But with maturity, you might also look back and realize such entanglements weren’t even worth the cynical knowledge gained. I can say this for “Hannah”: It’s almost as involving and annoying as whatever last friendship or romance went bust for you.