“It’s like a musical couch,” one character comments, shifting positions on a sofa with two others, nicely summing up the narrative thrust of the wispy but radiant “Hannah Takes the Stairs.” The line also unwittingly references the cinematic cross-pollination taking place amongst the real-life troupe of assorted filmmakers and artists featured in “Hannah” (though Joe Swanberg directs, eight names share the byline). Programmed as part of a two-week festival entitled “The New Talkies: Generation DIY” at downtown Manhattan’s IFC Center–seemingly in direct response to an article published in Filmmaker magazine’s spring issue exploring the freshly dubbed “mumblecore” movement–“Hannah” epitomizes this indie strain with its naked sincerity, neophyte/nonprofessional actors, near-plotless trajectory borne of improvisation, and nondescript visual style that clears the way for an emphasis on the miniscule moments that constitute coming-of-age in the lives of privileged (no one seems to work much, or need to) post-collegiate twentysomethings.
This down-to-the-bone naturalism has been most movingly deployed so far by Andrew Bujalski (who here plays Paul, Hannah’s love interest #2) in both “Funny Ha Ha” and “Mutual Appreciation,” and amusingly relayed in the road-tripping of the Duplass brothers’ “The Puffy Chair” (one of whom, Mark, plays Hannah’s love interest #1). Progressing beyond the earlier fumblings of “Kissing on the Mouth” and the more subtly developed “LOL,” the director harnesses in “Hannah” the fleeting emotional frequencies of everyday interaction for which he’s been striving. He does so with the help of his cast, particularly the complex and charmingly goofy Greta Gerwig as the titular hottie, a female character of a kind you don’t often see in American cinema: lovely and bright but without affectation, she revels in her sexual attractiveness even as she remains self-consciously confused about the costs. Spending time with her over a summer as she flits from one relationship to another, we watch closely as she cycles from first flush of flirtation to agitated distraction.
Swanberg interestingly mitigates the randomness in the drift of reality by playing with symbolic configurations: While hanging out at home one night with co-worker Matt (Kent Osborne, playing love interest #3) and roommate Rocco (Ry Russo-Young), Hannah accidentally spills a drink and, after wiping up, loses her central position on the couch, throwing off the tentative social dynamics. With Rocco now in the middle (she just met Matt), an awkward pause arises as that sudden intimacy of close proximity to someone you don’t know well lingers in the air. An embarrassed offer by Rocco to move over so Hannah can sit next to him is met with the same and waved away.
Though Hannah initially appears anxious–is she playing matchmaker for her two friends?–this soon gives way to sulkiness as the other two spin off into a conversation of their own. She slumps to the floor, her body broadcasting dejection (Gerwig’s emotional states are thrillingly transparent), and doodles on a piece of paper until Rocco and Matt notice her again and compliment her sketches. At this, Hannah, triumphant, inserts herself between the two and declares (ostensibly in regard to the picture), “I’m done; my work here is done.” But the look Rocco gives her pointedly recognizes the latter’s passive-aggressive marking of territory. In sequences like these, “Hannah Takes the Stairs” charts the elusive subterranean simmerings it’s so hard to put words to, and reveals the seeming newness of mumblecore as simply that same old search for onscreen moments that vibrate with life.
[Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shot staff writer and works at New York’s Film Forum.]