Person to Person

Movies Reviews Person To Person
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<i>Person to Person</i>

Some indies are tiny little gems, their seemingly inconsequential surface belying a rich, intricate interior world that reveals indelible truths about everyday existence. And then there are films like Person to Person, pleasant miniatures that, as charmingly slight as they might be, never quite expand into anything more significant. Running less than 90 minutes and shot on 16mm, the second feature from writer-director Dustin Guy Defa goes nowhere fast with amiable purpose. These wisps of character might remind you of people you know well—but the betting is that the folks in your real life are a tad more memorable.

Defa (Bad Fever) has made several shorts, including one titled Person to Person, and his latest feels like a rumpled collection of individual vignettes gathered together in one narrative. The separate storylines do not interweave, but they’re connected by the participants’ vaguely wistful notion that certain elements of their lives aren’t quite what they’d like them to be.

The most engaging of the episodes concerns Claire (Abbi Jacobson), who’s starting a job as a journalist at a second-tier New York paper. Her boss, Phil, played by Michael Cera, decides to take her under his wing to show her the ropes—and, if he’s lucky, to get her to fall for him. (He’s probably not going to succeed: As part of his seduction process, he plays her songs from his nascent metal band while they drive around town, much to her unhappiness.) Their first assignment involves a dead man, but was it murder or suicide?

Elsewhere, during the same day in New York, other characters go about their random bits of business. A record collector (Bene Coopersmith) seeks to acquire a rare Charlie Parker red vinyl, meeting up with the seller, who’s actually trying to sell him a fake. The record collector’s roommate, Ray (George Semple III), has his own story, which involves him spitefully posting nude pictures of his ex online and learning the consequences of such an act when the ex’s brother comes to kick his ass. And then there’s Wendy (Tavi Gevinson), who skips school with her best friend (Olivia Luccardi), only to discover that her pal actually wants to spend the day with her boyfriend more than her.

If there’s a character who might be Person to Person’s spiritual center, it’s that record collector, obsessing over an antiquated technology long prized for its ability to deliver music in a warmer format. Defa’s film is equally, proudly out of step, its participants not so much concerned with fitting in as they are worried about whether they can find others who feel like they do. The sense of dislocation is everywhere. The record collector self-consciously asks several different people if they like his shirt, which was sort of a risky fashion choice on his part. As Claire goes deeper into her investigation, she’s uncomfortable asking tough questions to the deceased man’s wife (Michaela Watkins) and a watch repairman (Philip Baker Hall) who might hold the clue to this mysterious death. The more Claire snoops around, the more she wonders if she’s meant to be a journalist—and if not that, then what is she supposed to do with her directionless life?

Person to Person radiates its own form of warmth—not just from its 16mm look but from its no-big-whoop attitude. This isn’t to suggest that Defa is mocking his characters—merely, that he sees their dilemmas as relatively minor in comparison to the large tragedies of the world. But whether it’s Wendy’s quiet melancholy or Claire’s constant anxiety, Person to Person keeps us attuned to the daily irritants that seep into our skin, the tingling aggravations that are usually not big enough to share with other people but that, nevertheless, slowly grind us down.

Not surprisingly, then, Defa pitches his lackadaisical movie somewhere between comedy and drama—it doesn’t muster enough energy to hit either tone forcefully enough to really resonate. Instead, it drifts along with its characters’ awkward feelings, and the performances match the oft-kilter mood. Jacobson dials back the ironic detachment she brings to Broad City, while Gevinson lets her dreamy eyes suggest a young life filled with disappointments she doesn’t want to talk about. Populated with a few non-actors who are friends of the filmmaker, Person to Person has a coziness that hints at the unobserved hangout moments that make up the bulk of most days. It’s a whole movie of half-remembered anecdotes you didn’t quite pay attention to when your buddy was telling them to you.

The trick is making something so slight stick. And while Person to Person has an appealing less-is-more stance, sometimes less is just less. Claire’s investigation doesn’t quite work as a mystery, but it also doesn’t exactly work as anything else, either—even a wised-up commentary on the typical TV-drama procedural. Likewise, the other vignettes promise more than they really deliver. Too much of Defa’s film floats in the air and then dissipates into nothingness. Person to Person’s defiantly recessive approach is the boldest thing about it—but only in the most modest way imaginable.

Grade: C+

Director: Dustin Guy Defa
Writer: Dustin Guy Defa
Starring: Abbi Jacobson, Michael Cera, Tavi Gevinson, Bene Coopersmith, George Sample III, Philip Baker Hall, Olivia Luccardi, Michaela Watkins
Release Date: July 28, 2017

Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.