The new film by Dustin Guy Defa is a web of breezy vignettes that perfectly captures the experience of living in New York City circa 2017 by way of 1979. Set over the course of one day, multiple story lines coexist but never unite, treading alongside each other and crisscrossing in turn. A teenage girl cuts class with her best friend only to feel scorned when two boys join their party unannounced. Two clumsy reporters, one of them on her first day on the job, follow detectives on the beat investigating a possible murder case while a good-natured record collector chases after a con artist, and a watch repairman works in his shop on East Broadway.
Playing a broad spectrum of characters, the actors range from the untrained to established professionals, all of them precisely suited to their particular roles. Newcomers like Bene Coopersmith, Buddy Duress, and George Sample III are illuminative, each of them exuding a singular charm. (Local cinephiles also appear in cameos, like director Benny Safdie, critic Eric Hynes, and programmer Jake Perlin.) Co-produced by mumblecore maven Joe Swanberg, Person to Person wears its community affiliations openly while upholding Defa’s individual style.
Humor is at the core of the director’s shifting script. Abbi Jacobson, co-star of Broad City and an accomplished comedian, tackles her role as a new hire at the newspaper with aplomb, giving a nuanced performance alongside Michael Cera, who plays her metal-loving, inappropriate boss. Isiah Whitlock Jr.’s blabbering retiree, who hangs out at the watch shop, draws humor from his peculiar delivery of gossip and random anecdotes, while scenes between Duress and Coopersmith veer toward slapstick, including a hilariously slow bicycle chase. Coopersmith, as a charismatic record collector, and Sample, as his best friend and temporary roommate, are highlights of the film. Coopersmith’s Bene is reserved and humane, while Sample’s permanently hangdog Ray is a lovable schmuck, suffering the consequences of having made an especially bad decision. Both are naturals in front of the camera, unhurried and likeable. Duress, an increasingly visible actor with his roles in the Safdie Brothers’ Heaven Knows What and Good Time, holds his own as the world’s most sympathetic con man, scamming Coopersmith with chuckle-inducing earnestness.
A delicate sense of humor helps maintain the film’s upbeat pace while scenes of intense emotion are mostly wordless. In one such scene, Tavi Gevinson’s moody teen is overwhelmed by the sight of an apparent dead body in the street, obscured from the view of the audience by a busy crowd. In another, Sample’s Ray stifles tears as his ex-girlfriend confronts him, staring with both pity and anger, her own emotions written across her face.
Defa’s swift editing enables Person to Person to skip effortlessly across its plotlines, each of which deals with the theme of connection. Bene thinks he connects with Duress’s smooth-talking record seller, only to find out that he was being conned. Ray ruptures his relationship with his ex-girlfriend when he posts nude photos of her online. Phil (Cera) tries desperately to connect with Claire (Jacobson), attempting to impress her with his band’s album as they ride in his car. Save for Bene and Ray, who live together, none of the characters bump into each other or reveal hitherto unknown relationships across different story lines. Defa respects his audience enough to relieve us of patronizing synchronicities, allowing us to piece together potential themes on our own. Suffused with rare soul music courtesy of The Numero Group, Person to Person emanates an optimism that is infectious right up through the closing sequence, a bustling dance party at Bene and Ray’s place that’s a boisterous scene of pure joy.
Margaret Barton-Fumo is the editor of Paul Verhoeven: Interviews (University Press of Mississippi) and a longtime contributor to Film Comment.