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by Mark Elijah Rosenberg
March 13th, 2007

Hanna Takes the Stairs is something of a miracle. Director Joe Swanberg took a bunch of non-actors, camped them out on a living room floor in Chicago for a month, and improvised a delightful, insightful and nuanced film.

The title, Joe told a packed and enthusiastic house, comes from a sketch of the plotline Joe made, which looked like a woman climbing stairs: she tries to move up (or down?), hits a plateau, and then tries to shake things up again. Most of the actors are also directors and/or writers themselves (Greta Gerwig, Andrew Bujalski, Kent Osborne, Mark Duplass, Ry Russo-Young and Todd Rohal), and I think that expertise allowed Joe and the cast to always find the dramatic shifts and tension in every scene.

Hannah herself is a fascinating character: at times manipulative, at times a victim; there are times she’s working hard to figure herself out and times she throws up her hands; but through all of it, one gets the sense that Hannah (as a character) is a very genuine person, even if she doesn’t know what she’s doing or she’s stabbing you in the back. I was strangely reminded of Jack Nicholson’s character in Five Easy Pieces. And yet this film is also fetching hilarious. There are fantastic set ups and visual jokes, pop culture gags and pure oddness, but what makes the film funny in a meaningful way is that most of the the humor is predicated on insights into the characters psyches, piercing their vivid emotional states.

My only regret is that for something that was left on the cutting room floor. Todd Rohal told me he ended every scene he was in with the same line: “Ok, I’m going to go take a poop and call my mom.” I can’t wait for the deleted scenes on the DVD. Watch for camera-shake in Todd’s scenes when Joe told me he was laughing so hard he couldn’t keep the framing.

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Rooftop Films is a New York based non-profit whose mission is to engage diverse communities by showing independent movies in outdoor locations, producing new films, coordinating youth media education, and renting equipment at low cost to artists.

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