Hannah Takes The Stairs Review

Whatever you might think about the merits or otherwise of the modern US independent cinema that goes under the label of mumblecore, there’s at least never really any ambiguity about the subject matter or stance of their films. Like most, Joe Swanberg’s Hannah Takes The Stairs is very clearly about young people’s alienation and dissatisfaction with the direction of their lives, particularly in the area of romance. For the characters in Swanberg’s film however, as in most films of this type, is not so much the difficulty of finding something meaningful and worthwhile to cling onto in their lives and in the modern workplace, as much as their inability to express the root of their dissatisfaction, grasp the problem and communicate it with others that drives the narrative and dictates the method in which the film is made. You might recognise the symptoms of depression in such a description, but for the most part Hannah Takes The Stairs at least keeps recognition of this condition below the surface of amiable goofing around - a description that you could mistakenly apply to the loose, amateurish filmmaking style, without realising that it is an essential part of what defines and limits these characters.

For Hannah (Greta Gerwig), the realisation that she needs something more from life comes when her boyfriend, Mike (Mark Duplass), quits his job and decides he just wants to hang out for a while on the beach. He could take the opportunity to get back to taking his music seriously again, but he’s not sure he could even be bothered with that, so Hannah decides it’s maybe time to break up with him. She has a job, but it’s not the kind of job that you can take seriously either, working with a small team of writers for a TV show, the three of them spending most of the day reading, talking, sharing experiences, playing silly office games or organising work parties. Hannah thinks her co-worker Paul (Andrew Bujalski) might be an interesting prospect for a boyfriend – he seems to have more interesting things to say, or more things to say about himself anyway. Hannah realises that this is where the problem lies – nobody actually listens to anyone else, thinking about themselves, they don’t really hear what the other person is saying. Her canoodling with Paul is also starting to spoil the atmosphere of harmless goofing around in the office.

Even if it does reflect the day-to-day reality of a large number of people of a particular generation, the lack of direction in their lives and workplaces, their dissatisfaction with their partners, the way they revert to infantilism when faced with the challenges of an adulthood that they can’t or are unwilling to grasp, the problems of conducting an office romance is still pretty lightweight stuff as far as a dramatic situation for a film. As a director moreover, Joe Swanberg also has a tendency to spoon-feed the audience, telling us everything rather than showing it. This is fine if you want to reveal other depths and meaning through the dialogue, but the conversations are rather banal and they are badly acted, the performers self-conscious and unnatural, standing around awkwardly, trying to hard to improvise, but over-explaining what they are feeling and what is going on.

You’ll find for example that Mike is vulnerable in relationships, not because something happens, but because he tells Hannah he can’t handle breakups. Coincidentally and rather obviously, this comes at a time just when Hannah is thinking of breaking up with him, which we know because Hannah has told her flatmate. Even attempts to express ideas and define relationships visually are rather awkward and badly staged – Hannah refusing to take Mike’s call when he is watching her, and later on when Hannah and one of her co-workers play around with magnets that attract and repel.

For all the apparent artlessness and inadequacy of the direction, the script and the acting, like most mumblecore films, Hannah Takes The Stairs has a relevant point to make about the alienation of youth in modern society, and it does it in a filmmaking style that is meaningful and relevant. It’s not trying to impress you with technical ability, make cineaste references to Ozu, Rohmer or Cassavetes or cleverly imitate and conform to accepted filmmaking approaches. The message is what is important and the means by which it is presented should accurately reflect the subject and the people. Romantic encounters don’t happen the way they do in the movies, they can indeed be awkward and make anyone in the vicinity cringe with embarassment.

You do often feel like cringing when watching Hannah Takes The Stairs, but it’s hard to separate those feelings that you are meant to feel about the characters - the film wants you to feel a little uncomfortable about what you are watching - from reflecting on the film itself. And when it comes right down to it, there’s really nothing new here at all that hasn’t been done better elsewhere. The point has been made exhaustively in mumblecore films like Funny Ha Ha, Team Picture and indeed in Swanberg’s own LOL, and it even goes right back to themes covered, with infinitely more precision, humour and ability in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. Swanberg’s worst mistake however is in believing that he needs to wrap everything up neatly at the end – actions have no serious consequences and the trials that the characters have faced up to now end up being nothing more than minor bumps on the road to eventual or at least temporary happiness. In this respect the film itself ultimately feels inconsequential and, echoing the final scene, gives the impression that it is rather too keen to blow its own trumpet.


Hannah Takes The Stairs is released in the UK by ICA Projects. The film is presented on a single-layer disc and – at least on the advance copy that was supplied for review – is in NTSC format. The disc is not region encoded.

The film is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic and is progressively encoded. At 83 minutes, not a particularly long film and with no other extra features on the disc, space issues are not a problem and the transfer of the digitally shot film consequently looks near perfect. It’s a little bit blurry in movement, but not interlaced – perhaps a consequence indeed of the digital photography. I don’t know if the film will be converted to PAL for UK retail release, but if so the blurring could become an issue. In NTSC, this looks just fine - detail is good and colouration is accurate and this is an excellent representation of the film.

The audio track is Dolby Digital 2.0 and it’s also fine. It’s not always fully audible, but that’s the mumbling of mumblecore for you, attempting to catch the natural rhythms and inflections of normal conversation rather than enunciated dialogue. For the most part, it’s clear and accurate.

There are no subtitles and no hard of hearing options.

There are no extra features.

There are certainly merits in the way that the mumblecore approach to filmmaking perfectly matches the youthful, easygoing attitudes of its characters living in the here-and-now, but there comes a time when they have to grow up, and with Hannah Takes The Stairs Joe Swanberg doesn’t seem to be ready to take that step and envisage a more realistic trajectory for the future. The UK release of the film by ICA Projects is as basic as they come, but the transfer is excellent.

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Last updated: 18/04/2018 20:07:21

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