Person to Person talks straight. In an age where authenticity has been conflated with grit, it’s jarring to bear witness to the well-adjusted souls that occupy Dustin Guy Defa’s newest film. Each character — and there are well over 20 — speaks to others with such stark emotional clarity that the pure earnestness of the film could be mistaken as naivete. That’s not to say every character who graces the frame is fully self-actualized, mature or perfect — no, everyone’s got their shit. In this utopia, though, everyone is driven by a uniquely human desperation to connect. Defa postures his film by that notion, so even when ugliness or insecurity or deceit peek through its skin, he never disallows his characters the benefit of the doubt.
Set in New York City over the course of a single day, Defa lets the rhythms of the city take the film where they please. A laidback montage opens Person to Person, greeting the city as it rubs the sleep from its eyes. Defa’s pedestrian perspective, the film’s warm 16mm grain and an exuberant 70s soul track make the streets feel like a reverie. Even watching a garbage truck compact the refuse of last night’s activities emits deep urban zen. It’s all part of the wonder of this sidewalk anthropology. From the streets, the camera peeks up to windows of the dwelling spaces above. What stories unfold, or which character receives attention, is based on the whims of the camera. But once a face, bedroom or voice is homed-in upon, they stay in mind. Each tale is of consequence. Each character is important.
Bene gets a call from a friend stating that he knows a guy wanting to sell a rare vinyl of Charlie Parker’s Bird Blows the Blues. Claire argues with her cat for just a few more minutes of sleep before setting off to a new journalist gig. Jimmy opens his clock store, and he’s soon joined by an old friend bearing coffee and stories of a new flirtation. Wendy convinces Melanie to skip school for a day of unplanned cavorting. Ray apologizes for not cleaning the fridge before Bene urges him to get out of the house today. The small plots of Person to Person gain ground as the day progresses. A few of the characters’ lives intersect: Bene and Ray are best friends, Claire and her superior Phil investigate a murder for their paper wherein Jimmy seems to play a key role, yet it’s not the physical or geographical intersection of these stories that matters. This film is without pretense, and thus has no room for a clever or winking narrative structure. It keeps in full focus the emotional tenor of these micro-narratives, each yielding to one another in waves. The intersection is spiritual, in rhythm with a specific place and time.
There is friction, like a run-in with a murderer or a stomach jab and diatribe delivered to a thief or a jealous lover confronted for his wrongdoing. But even in its tensions, the film’s aim stays true. Defa’s affection for his characters is built from within: they are all full of mercy and goodness. Person to Person posits a world where forgiveness, kindness and neighborliness are actualized by a recognition of the innate goodness of humanity. How often is a film held on trial for its ability to get at the truth of human experience? Audiences desire to be known by their art as to locate themselves, their experiences and their hopes within them. With brilliant precision, Defa crafts mini-narratives which acknowledge that interpersonal dynamics are enigmatic, but that the key to progress is to have a self-assured knowledge of self, even when personality is in flux. Knowing oneself leads to knowing others.
Defa is lucky to have such a collective of actors to work with, namely Bene Coopersmith and Tavi Gevinson who both embody the soul of the film’s core. Person to Person is in love with its actors as much as the audience. And it cuts against the spirit of our age. It’s hilarious, self-assured and tender-hearted. The film begs that humans know themselves well — these confusions of flesh and desire that we all are — and by doing so, Defa finds life in the connections we need to get through the day.
Colin Stacy (@bcolinstacy) is a writer, husband and father in Fort Worth, Texas. His writing has been featured at Reel Spirituality, Movie Mezzanine and 100 Films | 100 Scenes. He’s also the creator of the “Written and Directed by Elaine May” t-shirt.