“Terrible things happen in the city,” Phil (Michael Cera) can be heard saying to Claire, a cub reporter on her first day on the job, as the two spend the day traversing the streets of Brooklyn in Dustin Guy Defa’s “Person to Person.” “After a while, you start to see all of it as a consistent, unavoidable pattern.”
Yet in spending 24 hours in the city, Defa sees something different in his second feature, observing the quiet dignity of muscling through an unfeeling urban landscape that you may love more than it loves you and the power of small acts of kindness, sometimes done out of the wrong reasons, that keep people there afloat. It isn’t just that the writer/director is at odds with some of his characters in his feelings towards the metropolis, but with most contemporary portrayals of it as well, creating a mosaic of experiences that don’t necessarily overlap physically or thematically, but complement each other nicely in creating a sense of community amongst people who do their best to stave off loneliness.
Boiled down, “Person to Person” follows four stories — the aforementioned Phil and Claire as they chase down a story on a potential murder for the New York News, with the former’s offer of mentorship largely driven by a desire to spend a night with her; Wendy (Tavi Gevinson), an uncommonly analytical teen who wonders whether her fatalism is getting in the way of her happiness as she’s with her far more free-wheeling friend Melanie (Olivia Luccardi) for the afternoon; Ray (“Hunter Gatherer” star George Sample III), who’s guilt-ridden about posting nude pictures of his girlfriend to the internet as an act of revenge, making her brother’s threats of a beatdown benign by comparison, and his roommate Benny (Bene Coopersmith), a record collector who learns of a rare copy of Charlie Parker’s “Bird Blows the Blues,” but finds in tracking it down that the opportunity to obtain it may be too good to be true.
There’s little nobility in any of the scenarios Defa begins with as you see how self-serving behavior has led to dead ends for most of the ensemble, but as “Person to Person” takes shape, the filmmaker captures that elusive feeling of connection that has sparked something within them – each uncomfortable situation requiring growing amounts of courage to reach out to another and expose a little bit more of themselves. Lensed with great intimacy by Ashley Connor in what’s becoming a signature for the cinematographer of “Tramps” and “Funny Bunny,” the film zooms in and out both within the frame to capture emotionally raw moments and letting the humanity shown in resolving them shine through organically. This is particularly true of Wendy and Benny’s storylines where getting to watch Gevinson and Coopersmith, both riveting screen presences, reason their way through their predicament is among the most compelling stuff in the film.
Although “Person to Person” is distinctive in its pacing and its structure, it has the warm, familiar feeling of regional cinema – most akin to something like Richard Linklater’s “Slacker,” sharing its insatiable curiosity in observing the cultural attitude of a community, but even unusual in that respect since physical geographic specificity is less important than conveying a grander universal experience. In telling small stories of personal epiphanies, Defa is onto something bigger.
“Person to Person” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play twice more at the Sundance Film Festival on January 26th at 2:30 pm at the Marc in Park City and January 27th at 10 pm at the Holiday Village Cinema in Park City.