I am a fan of Joe Swanberg’s films (“Kissing on the Mouth” and “LOL”) and I am also a fan of Joe Swanberg. While many feel his films might rely too much on the “shock value” of graphic nudity and sex, I feel like Swanberg is just keeping it real. People get naked in real life and they have sex, and not usually in full makeup with soft lights. Others feel Swanberg’s films are too chatty or perhaps, pedantic in their dialogue. But for me, I’ve never once thought the dialogue in his films was literally telling you anything or arguing an angle as much as presupposing ideas or merely striking up a conversation both onscreen and with the audience. These are not “traditional” film structures or plots. Rather, I feel like they’re experiments in trying to connect with people as well as comment on ideas and feelings that plague us every day. Do we really want to be with the person we’re with and if so, why? What effect does our instant electronic communication with “friends” in our online world have on our “real life” friends? What does it take to be happy in life? It’s stuff we all deal with (well, some of it hopefully) and Swanberg’s films throw these and other ideas out there in broad, impressionistic strokes and open a dialogue. Plus, there’s always some nudity.
Swanberg’s third feature is “Hannah Takes the Stairs” and it’s got kind of a “She’s Gotta Have It” vibe working. Hannah (Gerwig) starts off the film in a seemingly fun relationship with Mike (Duplass) but we soon realize she isn’t happy. Mike has decided that he’s going to quit his job and enjoy life for a while. He doesn’t put any of his baggage on Hannah, but she soon becomes emotionally unplugged from him and the two go their separate ways. Meanwhile, back at the office Hannah is working on “a TV pilot” with partners Paul (Bujalski) and Matt (Osborne). Anyone who’s ever worked for a network on any kind of project will really get this part of the film. There’s just a lot of sitting around and talking. Sure, you get paid but it’s never really clear what exactly you’re supposed to be doing aside from working on your project. The scenes in the office fit well with Swanberg’s chatty style and they also allow for us to get to know Matt, Paul and Hannah. Soon an office romance develops and Hannah starts to play with everyone’s mind and heart.
As I watched this films progress online through behind the scenes journals, I thought it would be a lot funnier. Osborne is a funny guy and has some really good screen presence and comedic turns and Bujalski is also funny but in a weird, timid way. Don’t get me wrong, the film has humor but I think I was expecting more laugh out loud (“LOL”…hah hah!) moments. What really elevates “Hannah Takes the Stairs” is the truly outstanding performance by Greta Gerwig. Without gushing too much, her performance is simply one of the best you’re going to see in a small indie films. She’s at once lovable and also totally frustrating. There’s some scenes that are cute but then there’s some of raw emotion that are just plain captivating. It’s an all around great performance. I also enjoyed seeing the progression of Joe Swanberg as a filmmaker. Each film he does is a little more of an evolution in style and form and “Hannah Takes the Stairs” is like watching a natural progression of talent.