By Patrick Feutz
Character is at the heart of all four-ish to five loosely connected vignettes in Dustin Guy Defa's New York City ensemble Person to Person. Each thread speaks to a different subset of viewers, marching to a different tune but all taken from the city's songbook. One could accuse Defa of cherry picking from the best of day-in-the-life New York cinema, co-opting the city's split personality of hustling to survive and navel-gazing neuroses to mimic narratives that have been warmed over seven times since Sunday, but he ties it all together with a breezy, quietly celebratory approach that's happy to report that, despite how small some of its characters' dramas might be, by God it's great that there's drama to be found anywhere. In that respect, the natural atmosphere he builds and channeling of chatty cinematic heavyweights like Woody Allen make for a film that washes over you, inviting you to appreciate, if you can, the idiosyncrasies of his characters one scene at a time, without giving too much thought to charting the action across each story.
Morning routines offer our first glimpse into the lives of the characters before their paths sprawl out in all directions. Waking up to face the new day is a wide roster of talent, ranging from old hands and familiar faces like Philip Baker Hall and Michael Cera to cult stars on the rise Abbi Jacobson and Tavi Gevinson, to very welcome newcomers like George Sample III and Bene Coopersmith. As coffees get shared and slugged, Defa plunks one aberration from the norm into each story, just enough to make us wonder how everyone copes down the line. How Jacobson will handle her first day as an investigative journalist under Cera's unhelpful direction. How record shop owner Coopersmith will come out at the end of a deal on a rare mint-condition record. How Hall will fare with a troubling watch repair. How Sample III will makes amends for a pretty darn unforgivable act. And how Gevinson will take a step toward understanding herself.
As the youngest lead in the youngest leaning story, Gevinson (who's probably heard enough about her jaw-dropping resemblance to Scarlett Johansson) gets the most abstract dilemma as a moody teen who spends the day trading barbs with and avoiding the romantic machinations of her oversexed friend. On the opposite end of the spectrum are Jacobson and Cera, whose story of workplace alienation and quarter-life crisis shakes off any shade of nuance in favor of the zany deadpan the two specialize in. In between falls the rest of the material, which relays evenly between farce and sincerity and lets its actors completely inhabit their roles. Coopersmith (a record shop owner in real life, so that's easy) may unwittingly have to take the law into his own hands, but it's his enthusiastic quest for feedback on his new shirt and his ever-reaching optimism that wins you over. Comedy and tragedy are to be found in the smallest of details, be it a minor digression into a bit player's compulsion to gamble away the spare cash he earns out of the blue, or the way tears fall down a stony-faced Sample III's cheeks when he confronts the person he's wronged. Hell, one look at Philip Baker Hall and a lifetime of toil in the same neighborhood through the decades flashes before your eyes.
The success of Person to Person can't be attributed solely to its script, or its ensemble's delivery, or Defa's direction. It's not a landmark film, and there's nothing so revolutionary about it. It's simply in love with the ordinary, and it excels in pulling the surreal out of the banal. For the most part its characters aren't up to anything special. They collect things, fix things, and report things. They're on the margins. Skyscrapers tower in the distance as they mingle in parks or chase each other down alleyways. They think too much or not enough. They get by the best way they know how. On that note, it's easy to find one story in this collection that strikes a chord, whether it's in a teenager's struggle to accept herself, an elderly shopkeeper's determination to do right by his customer, or somewhere else in the lighthearted quotidian chaos of the big city.
Person to Person is screening in the UICA Movie Theater June 30th - July 13th 2017.