Hannah Ha Ha ★★1/2
Accessibility: For rent or purchase and streaming on multiple platforms, including Apple Play, Prime Video, Vudu; see JustWatch here for all options.
Searching for Focus
Finding one’s way in the world has never been easy or straight-forward and, as directors and writers Joshua Pikovsky and Jordan Tetewsky’s “ultra indie” film suggests, it’s more difficult than ever for young people to imagine and construct a satisfying life. Like many of her generation, Hannah, who turns 26 in the course of the film, is unmarried (and has no partner and no apparent sex life) and lives with a parent, her father. She’s gainfully employed, but barely, working part-time on a small farm and giving guitar lessons to one pupil (at least). She walks a dog. She’s severely overweight (unlike Charlie in last year’s “The Whale,” her weight is not an overt issue).
Right, actress Hannah Lee Thompson,
who plays the character Hannah
with facial expressions,
body language, and few words.
It would be too much to say that Hannah is “happy” (she’s not the bubbly type) and too much to say that she’s “unhappy” (she’s not a moper, and whatever frustration she may feel with her situation goes unexpressed verbally). The universality of her plight, if it is one, has much in common thematically with 2021’s “The Worst Person in the World.” But the techie, cosmopolitan, sophisticated world of Julie in that Oscar-nominated Norwegian film is light years from Hannah’s Massachusetts rural existence.
More or less satisfied, and now and then wistful, she just exists.
In contrast to the U.S. Surgeon General’s recent report on the nation’s epidemic of loneliness and isolation, Hannah shares a social life with a group of young people who enjoy her company. If her small-town round of life seems unfulfilling, the somewhat flacid Hannah doesn’t let on. More or less satisfied, and now and then wistful, she just exists.
It doesn’t help that the town is devolving.
Until, that is, her yuppie brother Paul (Roger Mancusi) shows up, eager to convince Hannah to find a “real” job, one “integrated into the economy” (as his is) with a health care plan, the prospect of promotion, and material goods. Paul comes across as a bit of a jerk, but he also genuinely cares about his sister, rightly concluding there’s no “future” for her in marginal farm labor. And so Hannah, somewhat reluctantly and without enthusiasm, embarks on a job search, armed with her high school diploma (she did well in English). It doesn’t help that the town is devolving: the movie theater is on its last legs; the radio station, where her Uncle Jay (Peter Cole) has a program (“the next time might be your time” is one of the show’s themes) is running on a bare-bones staff; and the large farmstand Creamery, depicted as the nostalgic center of the community, is about to shut down. “What a loss,” says man-of-few-words Dad (Avram Tetewsky). There’s work to be had at the mall, cleaning the fryer at a “gourmet” fast food outlet. That might not be what Paul had in mind.
Above center, Paul (Roger Mancusi) gets a less than enthusiastic response from Dad, Avram (Avram Tetewsky) and Hannah (Hannah Lee Thompson) as he encourages his sister to look for more meaningful (in his view) work.
One is tempted to lend the film political valence, with Hannah standing in for the Trump-era victims of globalization, the tech mania of the coasts, and small-town decline—but that would be to impose a structure that no character, not the least Hannah, articulates. There’s more to suggest that Hannah’s reluctance to move beyond her position has to do with the attractions of community—friends (even if not dear ones) and family, a comforting sameness, the mechanic with whom she barters for car repairs and, most important, the sense of purpose she feels for a father who needs companionship.
"...an intensely personal story, Hannah’s story, impeccably presented by actress Hannah Lee Thompson in the most reserved way."
The film’s unusual cinematography—it’s shot almost entirely in soft focus—could be explained as an effort to give the community visual representation, as a warm and fuzzy, even mystical, place. Yet this is an intensely personal story, Hannah’s story, impeccably presented by actress Hannah Lee Thompson in the most reserved way--with facial expressions, body language, and few words. And the decision the character Hannah makes is ultimately her own, made outside of any larger “political” framework, beyond the pull of the community, as significant as that may be, and beyond the generational situation she inhabits. That soft focus cinematography represents her own lack of focus, Hannah’s inability to decide on a life course, the haze that has enveloped her life.
Whatever its purpose, the soft focus by these novice directors is overdone, and irritating (indeed, we wondered if it were just a quirk of the streaming process). They rely on a couple artificial plot devices, such as Hannah losing her health care as she turns 26, but they also avoid excessive explanatory dialog and the over-used therapeutic solution.
Despite the production’s visual defects and a cast of actors without much experience, Thompson’s Hannah stands out as a character one cares about and feels for, while understanding that there is no obvious or satisfying solution to her dilemma, or to her liminal state. For an “ultra indie” (it won the Woodstock Film Festival’s Best Ultra Indie award; we didn’t even know that category existed), that’s almost enough.
Directors: Joshua Pikovsky, Jordan Tetewsky
Starring: Hannah Lee Thompson, Roger Mancusi, Avram Tetewsky, Peter Cole
Runtime: 95 minutes
Other Awards: 2 wins and 4 other nominations
Country: United States