MPAA Rating: NR
Director: Dustin Guy Defa
Runtime: 84 minutes
In 2014, Dustin Guy Defa released his short film, Person to Person; a film that could be considered not only one of the finest short films to come out of the American Indie scene but also, simply, one of the finest films to be produced over the past decade – because, remember, short films are just as legitimate and significant to cinema as their feature-length counterparts. Now, Defa is back with an expanded version of that original that weaves a number of narrative threads in and around New York City, while retaining the spirit of the original.
When it comes to the work of Dustin Guy Defa there is a certain warm-heartedness entwined with the awkward and the mundane and Person to Person continues along in that path. There is a wealth of sincerity and sympathy written into his characters, so much so that it permeates throughout the production that even when the storyline involves a possible murder investigation (as it does here), the film stays rooted in the intimate, personal connections between those involved.
Much of Person to Person’s comedy stems from the conversational exchanges of the hyper-ordinary or back-and-forths focused on death metal lyrics and/or negotiating the terms of one’s own legs-breaking. To be quite honest, the film’s main, recurring thread is whether or not a new buttoned-down shirt is the right fit for one of the main characters. The film’s humor may not be what some might consider laugh-out-loud hilarious but it definitely delivers a steady stream of chortles and enjoyment, the type of enjoyment that is difficult to pin down yet is all-encompassing.
A series of vignette narratives that intersect at times and remain exclusive at others, Defa’s film is a case of study of opening one’s heart – regardless of the dangers – and utilizing that openness in embracing and confronting anything that may present itself; whether it be positive or negative, being true to oneself with an honesty in your being and your actions enables fruitful reflection and/or introspection which, in turn, cultivates deeper understandings and connections with those you come in contact with. Obviously, that openness can lead to vulnerabilities which can lead to being taken advantage of or swindled, in some cases, but it also enables one the ability to empathize and love wholeheartedly. And, yes, it does sound a bit cheesy but Defa is able to communicate this thoroughly without the slightest hint of cheese.
One of the leading aspects, outside of Defa’s writing, that creates a sense of warmth within the characters and their respective narratives is the cinematography from Ashley Connor; who must be considered one of the best American cinematographers working today, no? If not, she should be and her work on this film should help solidify that notion. Utilizing the textures of 16mm, combined with a repertoire of classic zooms, Connor is able to make the most of a fairly straight-forward shoot with an unobtrusive style that fosters a sense of respectful intimacy while the grain of the 16mm provides a richness to the presentation of New York City; all of which further the overall enjoyment by rendering it all so welcoming.
The cherry on top for Person to Person would have to be the ensemble cast that has been assembled, a selection of established actors and up-and-coming talent both young and old. There’s the awkward chemistry of Michael Cera and Abbi Jacobson as they sleuth about the city as investigative reporters; Philip Baker Hall, Isiah Whitlock, Jr. and Marvin Gurewitz chit-chatting the day away; Bene Coopersmith dealing with a swindling Buddy Duress; Tavi Gevinson and Olivia Luccardi skipping school and spending the day hanging about; and, George Sample III trying his best to avoid the punishment from Okieriete Onaodowan. Each of these separate storylines could very well exist on their own terms as feature-length films if they were expanded, obviously.
Everyone brings something to the table, a chance to leave their mark and, quite astoundingly, everyone single performer does just that. Each member of the ensemble is able to deliver (varying levels of) memorable performances, even if their screen-time is relatively short. However, within this sea of solid performances, two specific turns stand out. Bene Coopersmith returning to pseudo-reprise his original role as a music-adoring record collector and Tavi Gevinson as a teenaged, intellectual misanthrope.
Once again Defa capitalizes on Coopersmith’s natural disposition; a genuine character that does not seem to need much in the way of writing to build him into a compelling character, just a couple of choice words for him to deliver with passion and heart. Gevinson’s Wendy, on the other hand, is very much the opposite of Coopersmith’s Bene as she routinely critiques and dissects via verbal barrages on her way to loathing just about anything or anyone currently found residing in her reality (outside of her friend, of course) before slowly opening herself up to others, letting herself be vulnerable despite the negative possibilities because, overall, it is worth it. Defa shows over and over that it is always worth it.