Joe Swanberg's Hannah Takes the Stairs had its World Premiere at SXSW last night. There was a lot of anticipation about the movie -- it was billed as one of the must-see films of the festival, and when I arrived at the Paramount Theatre it's clear that people took that buzz seriously. Two different lines -- one for the festival passholders, one for the general public -- stretched around the block. By the time that Matt Dentler, SXSW's Director, was on stage introducing the film, I think every last of the Paramount's 1200 seats was filled.
And the movie? It does not disappoint. It's a wholly successful romantic comedy, and it's Swanberg's most technically accomplished feature.
The plot is admittedly slight: A woman looks for love and satisfaction from three different suitors, two of whom are co-workers. On one level, that's "all." But, as with so much, it's all in the telling.
Last year, I remarked that Swanberg's LOL suggested hints of Renoir, and I'll reiterate that here. Like Renoir, one of Swanberg's primary talents is his ability to fill his films with immensely likable actors, and this film, which is almost completely comprised of other independent filmmakers, has an ensemble that's as warm and generous as any I've seen in a long, long time. Greta Gerwig, in particular, is a knockout.
Most of the time the humor is not "funny ha ha" (to quote the title of a film made by Andrew Bujalski, one Hannah's stars). The "comedy" is really an orientation, an optimism and humility, that one senses in the person behind the camera. But, yes, at times, the movie is (with a nod to Swanberg's last film) laugh out-loud funny.
The film is romantic, too, but not in the conventional sense of that word. It's romantic not because it dramatizes the coming together of two passionate, fated lovers, but because it documents the hard-won moments of real closeness that young lovers can share and then, so quickly, lose.
Reflecting on it this morning, I thought of Dave Hickey's introduction to Air Guitar. Hickey suggests that love songs matter because they play a social function: They help lovers find each other. With all the love songs in the world, you begin to search for your soul mate by finding the person that likes the same love song as you.
Hannah Takes the Stairs isn't plotty enough to be a movie for the masses. Still, it will find its audience -- at lots of festivals and on DVD. Among those audiences, I imagine that more than a few young couples will see this together and, in both liking it, they will learn something about themselves and each other in the process. How many films can you say that about?