A friend of mine once described his dog walker (a middle-aged Brazilian woman who babbled aloud to herself with the utmost conviction) as “a real New York character.” Though a generous label, welcoming association with the great variety of gonzo behavior that you’re likely to find upon setting up camp in any of the five boroughs, it nonetheless ensures a vivid understanding of the general sort of kook you’re dealing with. Connected only by this distinctive weirdness that comes gratis with their shared geography are the players and premises of Person to Person. Weaving together four slice-of-life stories set in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, Dustin Guy Defa’s new feature at Sundance sets out to paint a loving picture of its focal city’s je ne sais quoi.
Of course, this very same endeavor has proven the Big Apple quite the evasive muse for many the wide-eyed film school graduate. Person to Person’s photography alone may tell us why it succeeds where peers falter. Translating the aforementioned versatility in New York’s class of oddballs to the visual, Defa and cinematographer Ashley Connor brilliantly—and I mean that in more than one way—pair each showcased story with a unique aesthetic scheme. Tavi Gevinson’s ennui-stricken Upper East Side teen drifts through a world ranging from white to eggshell, while scruffy music dealer Bene Coopersmith lives in a veneer so rich and brown it practically dropped me back inside the velvet- and mahogany-based living room of grandfather’s apartment in Flushing, Queens.
Accompanying the vibrancy of its look is that of its characters and stories, most of which seem to be buzzing around in a manner so aimless and chaotic as to practically demand comparison to real life. Thus, like reality, some of Person to Person’s vignettes are stronger than others. A plotline involving a depressed lay-about’s betrayal of an ex-girlfriend’s privacy, while handled with stymying bemusement by a dead-faced George Sample III, doesn’t quite match the narrative drive of Abbi Jacobson and Michael Cera’s adventure in ad-hoc investigative journalism. Neither of these packs the emotional punch of Gevinson’s self-sabotaging devotion to her own misanthropic angst. And none of the lot can claim the comic magnitude of the best piece of the bunch: Coopersmith’s mission to acquire a suspicious Charlie Parker record… and, perhaps more importantly, an honest assessment of his new shirt.
Still, each has something to chew on, even if only the artistry in frowning that's put on display by its central players. So committed to the look of the city as paramount to its character is Person to Person that it does marathon-grade work with the faces of its actors—due credit to champion frowners like Sample, Jacobson, Gevinson, Coopersmith, and reigning champ Philip Baker Hall. Armed with a gift for New York’s default facial expression, each of the bunch communicates the inscrutable malaise that accompanies residential adherence to the beautiful, miserable city at the center of this piece.
Though you’d be a fool to try to nail down exactly what Person to Person is “about,” none of its stories stray too far from the decision—no, the compulsion--to be broken and alive here. The theme peers through in the yearning of Jacobson and Cera’s Seattle and Cincinnati expats to keep up with the dangerous pulse of the city, in Gevinson’s hyper-awareness of her native Manhattan toxicity, and in the very chromosomes of crazy-eyed Coopersmith. At one point manifesting as a homicidal caper and at another a nihilistic diatribe-laden character study, Person to Person is a lot like the New York character it celebrates: indefinable but unmistakable.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Images: Sundance Institute
Michael Arbeiter is the East Coast Editor of Nerdist. Find him on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter.