'Person to Person': Film Review | Sundance 2017

Courtesy of Sundance
An enjoyable throwback to a vintage mode of urban ensemble comedy.

Michael Cera and Abbi Jacobson lead an appealing ensemble in Dustin Guy Defa's riff on a 2014 short.

A proudly analog day-in-the-life comedy whose ensemble members scatter across New York City without stepping on each other's toes, Dustin Guy Defa's Person to Person looks and feels (in a good way) like something that might have played Sundance 20 or more years ago. Investing the least in its biggest names (Michael Cera and Abbi Jacobson), the picture identifies beautifully with marginal characters who, in a mid-2000s Sundance film, would have been milked ruthlessly for quirk value. Focused on amiable local color instead of escalating laughs, it will find many fans on the fest circuit and deserves its moment in art houses.

Defa made an earlier short by the same title, only loosely related to this feature. The main carryover is Bene Coopersmith, an untrained actor who in real life founded a small record store in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Though not graced with a traditional thesp's looks, Coopersmith has a self-conscious charisma that justifies the repeat casting; his Benny is a solid guy in a shaky world.

The movie opens as Benny, a jazz buff and sometime record dealer, receives a phone call offering him a rare piece of Charlie Parker wax. Donning a spiffy shirt whose questionable appropriateness will dog him throughout the film, Benny heads out for the score, but not before urging his depressed houseguest Ray (George Sample III) to get off the couch and go for a walk. Elsewhere, youth style journalist Tavi Gevinson plays Wendy, a pixie-cut misanthrope angst-ing her way through a day that threatens, against her will, to introduce her to a boy nice enough to date.

Contrary to expectations, these three characters have little if anything to do with what might be called the main plot, in which a crime reporter (Cera) brings a trainee (Jacobson) along in an attempt to find out whether a woman has killed her husband or simply come home to the scene of his suicide. From the reporters' workplace to the behavior of cops on the case to the noir-ready widow, everybody in this storyline seems to be playing his role through a couple of layers of ironic detachment — an intentional off-kilterness, surely, given the other storylines' realism. The exception is Philip Baker Hall's Jimmy, a watch repairman who may possess a key piece of evidence in the murder investigation: Unwilling to participate in whodunit shenanigans, Jimmy maintains a dignified silence when questioned by Jacobson's nervous Claire.

That mystery may seem destined for bumbling-detective hijinks, but the movie maintains a gentle vibe throughout, its pitch rising only in a single amusing chase scene involving a con man and a wronged record collector. As a result, small acts of generosity or emotional openness are more satisfying than they might have been otherwise. Benny the record collector never voices those tired arguments about vinyl's "warmth" capturing nuances digital recordings miss, but that won't keep celluloid lovers from seeing this Kodak-shot picture (beautifully lensed by Ashley Connor) as an illustration of the movie version of that sentiment: This film, looking so little like its indie contemporaries, nurtures our appreciation of small details, emotional accomplishments most films would breeze right past or bring too sharply into focus.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Next)
Production companies: Bow & Arrow Entertainment, Forager Film Company
Cast: Abbi Jacobson, Michael Cera, Tavi Gevinson, Bene Coopersmith, George Sample III, Philip Baker Hall, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Olivia Luccardi, Michaela Watkins, Ben Rosenfield, Eleonore Hendricks, Buddy Durress, Benny Safdie, Marsha Stephanie Blake
Director-screenwriter-Editor: Dustin Guy Defa
Producers: Sara Murphy, Toby Halbrooks, James Johnston
producers: Joe Swanberg, Eddie Linker, Peter Gilbert, Michael Sherman, Matthew Perniciano, David Lowery
Director of photography: Ashley Connor
Production designer: Katie Hickman
Costume designer: Annell Brodeur
Casting director: Avy Kaufman
Sales: Hailey Wierengo, UTA

Not rated, 84 minutes