Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Person To Person is the rare love letter to New York done right

Photo: Magnolia Pictures
Photo: Magnolia Pictures
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A sweet, light puff of a movie, Person To Person succeeds on the strength of its affection for shaggy-dog stories and the personalities who waltz in and out of them. In theory, it’s the sort of indie that’s already been done to death: an ensemble-cast love letter to the prickly character of New York. (Even worse, it’s shot on fuzzy Super 16mm.) But writer-director Dustin Guy Defa, a prolific director of short films making his first feature since 2011’s Bad Fever, has developed a feel for American eccentricity that brings to mind Jim Jarmusch and Richard Linklater in its best moments, albeit in a scruffier style. Taking its title from a superb, more or less unrelated short that Defa directed in 2014, the movie follows several stories, which are set over the course of a single day but don’t always overlap. It’s a film of ephemeral pleasures, adorned in a rich variety of voices, non-verbal gestures, and speech patterns: unfussy, unrushed, at times very funny.

The most conventionally dramatic of these occasionally intersecting narratives, in which a dorky, metal-bass-playing crime reporter (Michael Cera) and his trainee (Abbi Jacobson) hustle for information about a suspicious death, is also the least interesting, while the pokiest—which follows a hepcat record collector (Bene Coopersmith, who also starred in the short) as he considers the purchase of a rare Charlie Parker LP and mulls over telling his girlfriend that he loves her—is consistently delightful. This speaks to the ease with which Person To Person can luxuriate in non-events, like Coopersmith’s character (also named Bene) asking the owners of a bodega their opinion of his new floral-print shirt or a still-aspiring Casanova (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) telling a story about sleeping with a woman who also slept with Frank Sinatra. A lot of it depends on presence—especially when it comes to the balding, bespectacled, bearded Coopersmith, a real-life Brooklyn record store owner with enough confidence and easygoing personality to sustain a feature of his own.

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And then there’s Bene’s buddy Ray (George Sample III, terrifically droll), avoiding an ass-whooping that he knows he deserves; teen Wendy (Rookie founder Tavi Gevinson) rolling her eyes while her best friend makes out with a doofus; a cranky watch repairman (Philip Baker Hall) trying to go about his business; and, somewhere in there, a raggedly funny bicycle chase scene. Person To Person is the sort of movie that’s too breezy to admit to having a thesis, and yet all of its narratives touch in some way on authenticity—whether it’s Wendy’s feelings about her sexuality, Bene’s dilemma of expressing his true feelings or buying a possibly bogus record, or the old art of watch repair. Of course, it’s a question that dozens of New York-set indies have posed for themselves over the years, but few of them answer it as organically as Person To Person.

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