There’s a general connotation when you call something a “New York movie” that it places a significant focus on the city, often playing the landscape off as an identity of its own. Director Dustin Guy Defa’s approach in Person to Person is using New York as an integral part of his modus operandi, but never losing the sight of focus of his diverse array of characters. This respective choice avoids the feeling of the typical Altman-esque framework one might imagine when they hear someone describe a film as carrying several isolated narratives. Instead, he takes a more radical approach towards his intertwined anthology structure. Constantly switching back and forth between three detached arcs, there is a real sense of recognition for what each specific tale is tackling thematically.
What seems to be the go-to favorite for most who’ve had the pleasure of seeing Person to Person so far is the story of a Brooklyn record collector helmed by Bene Coopersmith; who has only popped up in Kalman & Horn’s L for Leisure outside his work with Dustin Guy Defa. First appearing in the 2014 short of the same name, Coopersmith captivated the screen in a mere 18 minutes that left the small but growing few that came across the short yearning for more of his understated onscreen presence. In the feature-length version of Person to Person, Benny — Coopersmith’s ever idiosyncratic personality — reappraises his role as the down-on-his-luck Brooklynite music aficionado. After a harmonious musical montage that encapsulates the city in all of its acquired nuance, Defa returns to his beloved character, as he wakes up to an early-morning phone call from an unknown caller. After getting his number from the owner of a local record shop, the man on the phone claims to have possession of the passionate record connoisseur’s long sought-after “red version” of Charlie’s Bird Blows the Blues. Following a heartfelt motivational speech to his morose roommate interlaced with his own inner questioning of whether his new purple shirt fits his personality, Benny sets off on his bicycle to track down the enticing LP that got him out of bed.
All the way over on the other side of the Manhattan Bridge, the second of the three interwoven tales follows Claire (Abbi Jacobson) as she begins her first day working as an investigative journalist. Running alongside Michael Cera’s uncontrollably neurotic Phil, their first day on the job together plays out like a wild goose chase. Jumping back and forth from rows on end of well-kept brownstones to a mom-and-pop Chinatown clock repair shop — run by a grumpy Philip Baker Hall, the pair scrupulously attempts to crack the case of the apparent suicide of a middle-aged husband. While Cera’s extreme neuroticism could easily make enough for the overall arc to ride out on itself, Defa capitalizes on the more commercial draw of this section to accentuate his central focus on the countless souls who occupy this grandiose city.
The film’s third and final chapter places its focus on Wendy, a perplexed high-school student, who is at wits’ end with the never-ending antics of her peers. Blowing off yet another day at school alongside her love-obsessed best friend, the two spend most of their day sharing their difference in opinion on everything from relationships to sex, until Wendy finally remarks, “Can we like stop talking about dicks and vaginas?” For a film as thematically profound as Person to Person, it’s immensely unusual to come across something that matches the level of ideas it has with humor. The amount of nuance that Defa paints each of his personalities with help to make the smallest gestures — like the matter in which someone taps on a car window — have an entire theater break out in uproarious laughter.
As neighborhoods continue to gentrify year in and year out, contemporary stereotypes begin to arise for the ever-changing landscapes. Dustin Guy Defa is not a filmmaker who is concerned with presenting a general consensus for a specific community; instead, he places his concentration on discovering and gradually drawing out the individuality that each person possesses no matter where they are. It’s this rare degree of understanding and dimension that he places in each of his personalities that allows for his work to flourish into something so strikingly unique. While only his second feature, the standard to which his films have obtained so far in his short career is almost unimaginable. His filmography capture not only the unique temperament of his characters, but it marvelously reflects who he is as a person, and that’s really what filmmaking is all about.