Person to Person
(Dustin Guy Defa)
Dustin Guy Defa’s Person to Person is a remarkable film. As you work through the film, you may make the mistake of assuming where it’s going before it gets there. As a variety of new and familiar faces ornate the picture, you may feel the urge to anticipate the moment when all their narratives will converge in a tidy fashion. Let’s put that to rest: some of the film’s quote unquote narratives intersect, some do not. Others resolve themselves, while others will thoughtfully weigh on the moment and linger – not all of our concerns, petty or cosmic, will be resolved within the confines of a day. And more importantly, those concerns involve a constellation of ordinary people that are all struggling to compose an identity in a metropolis that will so often suffocate and detach. Defa, monumentally, does for NYC what Raymond Carver did for the Pacific Northwest. This is major.
All the narratives rely on couplets to establish a unique thematic dichotomy. And in most of cases, you encounter one character that (seemingly) has calcified their identity while another is still finding their path. This isn’t an especially obvious tactic, though it does become increasingly clear as you step away from the film. We begin with Bene (Bene Coopersmith, in what’s one of the most surprising and best performances of the year so far), a vinyl collector who travels across town to purchase a particularly rare Charlie Parker album. He shelters his best friend Ray (George Sample III), who has just gone through a particularly contentious breakup. The two share the screen only briefly, but their camaraderie and warmth toward one another is among the chief delights of Person to Person. The narratives that encircles these two characters underscore the film’s thematic concerns with identity. Bene, despite some reservations about what his flamboyant shirt expresses, is confident and sure-footed. He knows who he is and will not allow his agency to be jeopardized or swindled. Ray, however, is unsure. Mild-mannered and reserved, he also expresses a deep-rooted sense of regret over posting nude photos of his ex-girlfriend online. He doesn’t seem the type, but we all do things we regret; most of us are Ray, most of us want to be Bene.
Defa frames this ideal of achieving identity versus confronting the clinical reality of our disappointments with such acute sensitivity. This confrontation between ideal and reality is made especially more profound in that Defa will seemingly juggle our perception of what identity and agency can mean. For example, in Phil and Claire’s narrative (Michael Cera and Abbi Jacobson), there’s a distinct sense that Claire, a beat reporter on her first day on the job, is constantly trying to keep up with Phil who apparently has everything figured out. “Don’t trust your instincts” says Phil as he tries to dissuade Claire from quitting. Yet as their story comes to a close, it’s Claire’s awareness of her own limitations that echoes as clearheaded and true, whereas Phil cannot help but confront his own faults with confused aggression. Not all of these narratives conclude with a validation of one truth over another, as Wendy (Tavi Gevinson), a young high school student, ends her day more confused than when she began. Her only friend typically abandons her to make-out with her dunderheaded boyfriend. Wendy’s journey demonstrates the gamut of anxieties that we navigate through the day, where we so often opt for preemptive nihilism in the face of the bitter truths that break us down. It’s to Wendy’s genuine shock that a boy accepts friendship over a casual hookup or a relationship that breaks down her harsh veneer; people are still capable of goodness. And even as Wendy confronts death, there’s a distinct, perhaps naïve, sense that maybe the world is indeed not unendurable. That is, without a doubt, a beautiful thing to realize.