A New York indie gem, melding wry humor, quiet drama, and thoughtful sentimentality’
Explosive blockbusters may dominate the box office in this day and age, but some of the most enjoyable cinema experiences can be found when looking for the extraordinary within the mundane lives of everyday people. My favorite film of 2016 was Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, a quiet and subtly reflective story about the everyday life of a small town America bus driver. Finding poetry and beauty in day to day routine made Paterson a meditative watch, and much of the same thing is happening here, in little-known director Dustin Guy Defa’s second feature film.
Using a multi-stranded narrative structure, Person to Person takes place during a single day, focusing on a handful of characters living in New York City. Some of the narratives are interwoven, while others are entirely unrelated, but all are given equal attention and are just as engaging as each other.
The film’s biggest strength is its wonderful characters, all of whom feel as though they could easily be real people that one may encounter on the streets of New York. The screenplay (written by Defa) is funny, intelligent, and most importantly, realistic. Dialogue is casual and often inconsequential to the plot, so is simply devised to flesh out these characters and breathe life into their mundane, yet fascinating lives.
Of course, having a great screenplay is only halfway towards strong characterisation, and fortunately, Person to Person has assembled a solid ensemble cast. Six characters are in focus, and all clearly have their own issues as individuals, which are explored through the days unwinding events. Michael Cera plays Phil, a newspaper editor who tries too hard to impress people, desperate for the kind of connections that those around him seem to share. His new trainee journalist Claire (Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson) is unsure of whether journalism is the right job for her, and is considering new ventures. These two get caught up in an amusingly unspectacular murder mystery that acts as a challenge for Claire’s anxiety and her passion for the job, which may be lacking.
Elsewhere, vinyl-collecting hipster Bene (Bene Coopersmith) cares too much about how he comes across to others, fretting all day about whether or not his new shirt suits him, whilst dealing with the complicated transaction of a rare Charlie Parker record. Meanwhile, his best friend and housemate Ray (George Sample III) is in trouble with his ex’s brother, having uploaded nude images of her online whilst in a blindly depressive state. Ray’s story is a sad one, one of regret and heartbreak, and his segments are more gloomy than the others, but these scenes are wholly engaging to watch thanks to a wonderful, bittersweet performance from newcomer Sample III.
The final story looks at teenage tomboy Wendy (Tavi Gevinson) as she struggles with social awkwardness and feeling like an outsider, whilst grappling with her sexuality. Hugely reluctant to mingle with others initially, this begins to change over the course of the film, as her cynicism evaporates when an acquaintance shows her that not everyone is as ignorant as she believes them to be and that she can be accepted for who she is. This narrative holds no connection to the others and stands completely alone, but there are clearly links between all these characters, through their insecurities, fears, and flaws.
One disappointing element to the film is that frequent Paul Thomas Anderson collaborator Phillip Baker Hall doesn’t get all too much screen time, and his character is not explored in as much depth as the others. An old man working in a clock shop, Jimmy also gets embroiled in the homicide case but tries to stay out of trouble and keep his head down (unsuccessfully), seemingly weary and tired of New York’s daily drama.
Deeply rooted in its Big Apple setting, these characters are clearly New Yorkers, and the film’s location certainly has a big influence on the story. The small scale of these tales enforces the feeling that these people and events may be witnessed on a stroll through the city, capturing atmosphere and influences that the film simply would not have if it were to take place anywhere else in the world. Affectionate shots of the urban streets and busy, bustling landscape show off the city’s unique aesthetic and culture and make the characters seem at home in a sometimes alienating, but overall loving and accepting environment.
Some may have problems with the film’s lack of cohesion and its unclear intentions, as this may lead to events seeming unfulfilling and meaningless on a grander scale. But what Defa does is allow the audience to find their own meaning and themes that give relation to these very much separate stories. It is clear that these characters all share something in common; they are flawed individuals, who are not quite content with some element in their lives. Throughout the film, they all find some solace from other individuals, and all make some sort of progress or realization by the end of the film, through an emotional connection with fellow New Yorkers. Coming in at a suitable 84 minutes, this run time prevents these small situations from becoming stale, while leaving the audience wanting to see more of these characters, and wondering how they will get by in the days to come.