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MIFF 2017: Person to Person

Dustin Guy Defa’s breezy second feature follows a group of characters each navigating an inflection point in their lives during the course of one autumn day in New York City. An ensemble slice-of-life indie that wades comfortably in the still waters of life’s lesser dramas, its web of vaguely connected storylines finds comedy in the earnest search for one’s true, unaffected self.

Claire (Abbi Jacobson), on her first day working for a pulpy tabloid, shadows the morally ambiguous and unlucky-in-love journalist Phil (Michael Cera) as he investigates a death. Across town, vinyl record collector Bene (Bene Coopersmith) is given a lead on a rare and valuable copy of Charlie Parker’s Bird Blows the Blues, but soon discovers that the seller may not have been entirely truthful in his description of the item. Down-and-out Ray (George Sample III), sleeping on Bene’s couch, is trying to piece back together the relationship he ruined by posting naked pictures of his girlfriend online in a depressive haze. Wendy (Tavi Gevinson), sceptical of her best friend’s new boyfriend, questions not only her own sexuality but her place in the world.

Though events are incited by a death, nothing quite that dramatic occurs during the course of the film — unless you count a low-speed bicycle chase, one of the film’s mildly absurdist highlights, as dramatic. Each of these characters — and others who drift in and out of the film — must decide how they define themselves and what’s important in their lives: does Claire have the moral constitution to risk failure and confront a grieving widow in the pursuit of a story? Is Wendy ready to shake her tendency for critical self-evaluation and just experience life? Can Ray sufficiently humiliate himself to convince his girlfriend of his contrition? Does Bene’s shirt make him seem too fancy?

These New York stories are nothing new, nor do they have much grand to say, but they exude an effortless charm and – amongst the vinyl records, newspapers and bicycles set to a soundtrack of mid-century jazz and R&B – a kind of vintage allure. But what leaves the most lasting impression are the performances, courtesy of some of the New York independent cinema and theatre scenes’ best young actors. Michael Cera in particular brings a new level of volatility to the disaffected douchebag character he’s been developing in films like Youth in Revolt and Lemon. With a less capable cast a screenplay as aimless as this one could easily have meandered into irrelevance, but as brought to life by Cera, Jacobson, Michaela Watkins, Bennie Safdie and others, it builds a believable world of human frailty filled with confused, awkward, emotionally resonant characters.

The vignettes are uneven — non-actor Coopersmith shines in the film’s funniest storyline; Gevinson’s posturing gives her character’s verbose dialogue an air of inauthenticity — but taken as a collection, Person to Person confirms that the talky American indie hasn’t yet been entirely played out.

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