‘Person to Person’ is a sprawling collage of life in New York (but in a good way)

Back in 2011, frustrated from dud of a screening at my first night of SXSW, I wandered into an auditorium to see a film I knew nothing about. This is the recommended mode for film festival going, by the way; if you want a sure thing, go to the multiplex next week. The film, “Bad Fever,” turned out to be one of my favorite films of that year, and its director, Dustin Guy Defa, became one of those names for whose films I would seek out without knowing anything else about the work.

Thankfully, Defa is back at SXSW with another feature, “Person to Person,” a sprawling collage of life in New York City. That description barely does the film justice. Every American festival is bursting with tales of New Yorkers trying to make it through a tough day. But this film is different. Defa introduces us to unexpected characters, and films out every corner of their being so well, each could sustain an entire film on their own. Instead we get delicious morsels to ponder and enjoy.

There’s Bene (Bene Coopersmith), the record collector, and his roommate Ray (George Sample III), who is scared to leave the couch. There’s the journalist, Phil (Michael Cera), who brings to bear his considerable beat reporting skills in an effort to impress his new protege, Claire (Abbi Jacobson). There are the high schoolers playing hooky, Wendy (Tavi Gevinson) and Melanie (Olivia Luccardi), and the clockmaker, Jimmy (Philip Baker Hall) trying in vain to keep to himself after he’s embroiled in a murder investigation.

Their stories intertwine, sometimes just so, but “Person to Person” is no sleight of hand parlor trick. No moment is wasted, no character half-considered. Defa intently approaches the scope of Robert Altman and the depth of Todd Solondz. There is a brief moment in which a couple, walking near one of our stars, argues so specifically we feel almost ready to follow them off-screen to see where their story leads. But they’re just the window-dressing on the city, one of the millions of stories passing you by.

New York is, perhaps the most filmed city in history. It has that magical ability to be almost timeless. Defa uses this to his advantage in rich 16mm film, telling stories that rely on the oldest aspects of the human condition: love, revenge, mystery, and curiosity. Technology is there, but it’s neither central nor is its absence noted, as is a regular crutch to move plots forward that would easily be solved with a text message.

The performances are some of the best I’ve seen in an indie film recently. Cera takes his signature deadpan to new heights, bringing to life a character that is at once sympathetic and even a bit creepy. Jacobson plays off him well, bobbing and weaving through uncomfortable experiences trying to do a job she may not even want.

And Gevinson is a revelation as Wendy. Her youth makes her think she is too cool for this world, but she learns it is bigger (and darker) than she gives it credit for. Gevinson brings weight to Wendy’s sophomoric certitude. There isn’t a bad performance in the film, and for my money that is a credit to Defa’s direction and writing. What is so shocking in this film is that no two characters are alike, and I never once thought that any of them are a stand-in for the writer-director. The teenagers talk like teenagers about teenage things. The old men farting around Jimmy’s clock shop sound like old men shooting the shit. Every character gets to be themselves.

On top of his talents as a director, Defa just plain has good taste. The music in the film, mostly soul, funk and jazz cuts, is stellar and deeply considered. It matches the grainy film and bright colors of the city. This is New York on Defa’s terms, and it’s a beautiful picture unlike any I can remember. I hope I don’t have to wait another six years to see another feature of his.

[photo: Park Pictures]