Dustin Guy Defa’s “Person to Person” is a gentle summer breeze of a movie that’s set during an early fall day. Amiably unstuck in time without feeling anachronistic, Defa’s second feature pulls off the trick of offering an analog version of New York in a digital age. Threading together enough vignettes to compete with a young Paul Thomas Anderson, Defa bounces between a motley crew of characters, all of whom are living together on their own time. On their own, they don’t add up to much, but play them together and they cohere into the cinematic equivalent of vinyl.
Dusting off a title that Defa previously used for a beloved 2014 short, the feature-length version of “Person to Person” isn’t an adaptation of that earlier work so much as a shaggy expansion pack. In fact, the two films might seem entirely unrelated if not for their one shared character, a rabid vinyl collector named Bene portrayed by Bene Coopersmith, a relaxed but relatively inexperienced actor who stands out among one of the more surprising casts in Sundance history. An eccentric with a bushy beard and a rusted bicycle, Bene’s day begins with a hot tip about a rare Charlie Parker record. Bene’s guileless friend Ray (George Sample III) is on his couch when he leaves, hiding after he uploaded naked pics of his cheating girlfriend to the internet.
Across town, Claire (“Broad City” star Abbi Jacobson) is working her first day as a local crime reporter for The New York Daily News, which may not be the best job for her particular set of skills. Not that it matters very much to her thirsty new boss (Michael Cera, natch), a wound-up weirdo who shows Claire the ropes, plays her some speed metal, and forces her into the middle of a murder investigation that revolves around a Lower East Side clockmaker (the great Philip Baker Hall) who just wants to be left to his tinkering.
Meanwhile, maybe 80 blocks north, a hyper-articulate high school senior is struggling to make sense of her own sensitivities. Played to perfection by an androgynous Tavi Gevinson (who’s every bit as vibrant and compelling as she was in Nicole Holofcener’s “Enough Said”), Wendy is sick of watching her best friend and her best friend’s boyfriend slobber over each other all day. Despite being AWOL for long stretches of this brief movie, Wendy ultimately emerges as the purest expression of its ethos — if Bene is its heart, she represents its warm and wistful soul. Everyone is trying to achieve some kind of harmony between being a part of the world and letting it go, but she’s the one who can see that balancing act for what it is.
Somee plot threads are more entertaining than others. Cera and Jacobson’s fumbling journalists wear thin despite a spirited cameo from “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” director David Zellner as a New York Post reporter who’s always a few seconds too late. (He’s one of several indie fixtures to pop up, an eclectic mix that makes room for filmmakers, critics, and even the owner of NYC’s Metrograph cinema.) But Defa is full of surprises, and it’s easy to forgive superfluous moments when there’s a hectic chase through the bowels of a record store, or a scene where Isaiah Whitlock, Jr. reminisces about sleeping with one of Frank Sinatra’s old flames, lamenting that he asked her which of the two men was better in bed. And then there’s Okieriete Onaodowan, the artist formerly known as Hercules Mulligan in Broadway’s “Hamilton,” who lights up the screen as Ray’s girlfriend’s brother.
Shot in beautifully textured 16mm and told at an unhurried pace, “Person to Person” requires some getting used to, but once you settle into its groove the movie becomes much more than the sum of its parts. Defa’s film is slight, but that becomes part of its charm. He fits so many well-drawn and well-loved people inside an 84-minute movie that it’s easier to believe that the five boroughs could host several million more. That’s not much of a consolation when you’re cut off from characters whom you would happily watch for another few hours, but New York City teems with too much life for any one piece of art to capture it all. To borrow Wendy’s words and take them out of context: “It’s big, and it’s not big, depending on how you see it.” By the time that “Person to Person” dances through its effervescent final moments, the city feels perfectly life-sized.
“Person to Person” premiered in the NEXT Section of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.