“Person to Person” opens with shots of New York City that give a glimpse of the intimate spaces within the bustle that non-locals might not know exist. The film, in some ways, brings the New York of Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” into the present era — a sense that is indelible throughout the film. Shot entirely in 16mm, the gorgeously faded colortone in “Person to Person” mirrors its simple but sincere characters.
The film also has an impressive ensemble cast, particularly given that it is writer/director Dustin Guy Defa’s first feature-length film. Unfortunately, the result is steeped in a tone of inauthentic authenticity. This film is a series of honest reflections, but they are exactly that, reflections: perceptions of a reality that are influenced by a desire to be authentic.
That’s not to say there isn’t a level of promise within “Person to Person.” The characters express fears and desires, both surface-level and deep-seated, that are awkward, uninhibited and entirely relatable.
Claire (Abbi Jacobson) is a librarian who longs to be a journalist but lacks the confidence required to approach people, and Wendy (Tavi Gevinson) is a high-schooler who feels too much and nothing at all at the same time. Phil (Michael Cera) is a self-important journalist who’s desperate to get laid, and Jimmy (Philip Baker Hall) is an aging man who just wants to keep to himself. Independently, these characters each have intriguing and deeply relatable psyches. Each is packed with a clever, if aloof, sense of humor.
Still, when placed together in this film, they feel like a hodgepodge of cynics who don’t have much relation to each other.
“Person to Person” operates with a level of realism that resembles Jean-Luc Godard’s New Wave film, “Breathless” — and it’s not just Tavi Gevinson’s resemblance to Jean Seberg. The film lacks the three-act structure we’re used to — instead, “Person to Person” poses as an inconsequential glimpse into the daily lives of ordinary people.
However, the film’s façade makes its attempt to demonstrate how all these characters exist in the same narrative space feel underwhelming. If the film is going to give us all these characters so carefully built to reflect ourselves, then it must to a little more work to make them fit together.
As it stands, “Person to Person” feels like a confusing blend of authenticity and fabrication. It’s participating in a long history of films that have made their settings a breathing character in their narratives. Like several films before it, “Person to Person” brings the cacophonous life of New York City to the fore by giving us several day-in-the-life narratives — but it fails to do much more than that. It might deliver relatable and humorous lines, but the characters’ arcs are directionless — and therefore become regrettably forgettable.
It’s not that every story needs to be “resolved,” but this plethora of stories don’t seem to go anywhere. The characters feel a little force-fed, because they tell us how they’re feeling and show us very little. Each character’s story ends up being too short in order to accommodate the ensemble, which, in the end, leaves very little up to interpretation. “Person to Person” gives us too many characters that, by the film’s end, feel somewhat the same
On top of that, the film lacks concision, which made its ending feel abrupt and inconclusive at the same time — it ends without any sense of forward movement — we feel equally as distant from the characters as we did at the film’s start. Despite having spent an hour and a half with them, we don’t know the characters at all beyond their minor conflicts: one feels manipulated by a record deal, another tries to repair his relationship after a revenge porn incident (don’t get me started), among several others.
At the end of the day, it feels as though “Person to Person” needs to pick a side: either let go a little bit and push further into realism — give us something raw, give these characters more depth and individuality, and leave wiggle room for the audience to come up with their own perceptions about them — or make their stories more concise and make them intersect a little more believably.
The sincerity of these characters is endearing and relatable, showing Defa’s strength in creating likable characters, providing hope that his next films will be more brave in their allowance for interpretation by the audience and more clear in their cohesion.
Contact Sophie-Marie Prime at [email protected].