Big Love: Dustin Guy Defa Touches the Sublime with “Person to Person”

Directed, Written, and Edited by: Dustin Guy Defa
Starring: Michael Cera, Abbi Jacobson, Bene Coopersmith, Tavi Gevinson, George Sample III, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Michaela Watkins, Philip Baker Hall
Produced by: Toby Halbrooks, James M. Johnston, Sara Murphy
Executive Produced by: David Lowery, Matthew Perniciaro, Michael Sherman, Joe Swanberg
Cinematography by: Ashley Connor
Official Selection of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival

*****

Cinema, as we all know, is dead and buried in a little coffin-shaped film canister. But Dustin Guy Defa, the young filmmaker whose magnificent short movies have created a deep well of expectation for his new feature Person to Person, is one of American cinema’s greatest mediums.

As writer, director, and editor, Defa’s key tools are a tender touch and an aching heart. His desperately sad Lydia Hoffman Lydia Hoffman, with cinematography by Sean Price Williams, has been described as “lucid,” “luminous,” and “expressive,” all appropriately, as it is among the most affecting short films I’ve ever seen. And as an actor, in films like Onur Tukel’s uproarious Summer of Blood and Todd Rohal’s Uncle Kent 2, he has proved to be a wry presence, smirking, but without any hints of the arrogant irony so common in independent Brooklyn comedies written and directed by white men (of which Defa is one.)

Person to Person represents a fusion of these instincts – dimly melancholic, cracklingly funny, effortlessly well-peopled – with the high-level casting of celebrities. Michael Cera, for example, plays Phil, a beat photojournalist whose inept protégée is Abbi Jacobson’s Claire; Tavi Gevinson, who co-starred with Cera on Broadway in This is Our Youth, here appears as a restrained teenaged intellectual set up on a blind date with the hesitant River (Ben Rosenfield, 6 Years); and character masters like Philip Baker Hall, Michaela Watkins, and Isiah Whitlock Jr. fill out the major supporting roles in a pedestrian murder mystery involving wristwatch repair.

Refreshingly, this is not a hyperlink picture in the Iñárritu mold. It’s true that certain characters, like the beautifully insecure record collector embodied by Bene Coopersmith, do exist in the same narrative world as others, like George Sample III’s despondently single Ray. Yet the stories being told here do not needlessly intersect, instead building upon one another through uniformities in comic tone and cinematography between the anecdotes.

Defa is, in that way, like Robert Altman, the master of ensemble comedies; unsurprisingly, there is an uncanny resemblance here to the charming weariness in films like Short Cuts and even Gosford Park.

It has also become a cliché to remark upon how cliché it is to describe a setting, like the Los Angeles of Short Cuts or the title city in Nashville as an additional “character”, so I’ll avoid that. But the New York locations in the film are captured in “lucid” and “luscious” 16mm cinematography by Ashley Connor, giving them the beauty of genuine locality: repair shops taste dusty, liquor stores look sloppily organized, and there is absolutely no suggestion of the elaborate behind-the-scenes efforts needed to make Defa’s version of the city come alive. The movie set all but disappears.

This quasi-reality, which owes itself not only to Connor’s photography and Katie Hickman’s grounded production design, but also to the nonprofessional actors sprinkled throughout the cast, produces an intense emotional immediacy, a sensation of metaphysical transportation that is felt in the toes.

The presence of so many compelling characters onscreen is both an indicator of how expansive his creative vision has become and a validation of actors’ trust in Defa, despite his having only one previous feature under his belt: 2011’s Bad Fever, which had its World Premiere at the SXSW Film Festival.

Though the crazed events of the low-grade whodunnit in Person to Person play out over a single day, Defa’s script makes it feel like a short lifetime with each character.

Consider the dinner date between Coopersmith’s Benny and Francis (Eleonore Hendricks, fast becoming an indie MVP), with whom he has become too quickly enamored. Benny and Francis sit outside at magic hour, she with a contented smile on her face, he with an obnoxiously patterned shirt. As they talk, we feel light falling and the air becoming chillier; a breeze waves leaves behind the restaurant’s patio.

As the sky purples, the hectic events of Benny’s day – including a slapstick robbery at the bowlcutted hands of Heaven Knows What’s Buddy Duress – fade completely into their story. “I’ve got big love for you”, they say to one another.

That we feel this to be so in “real” life is a sublime achievement, though it does have its precedents among recent independent films. Among those, the strongest are probably the Chicago-set dramas of Joe Swanberg, who executive-produced Person to Person, and the last three movies by the Zellner brothers. Not coincidentally, David Zellner shows up in a minor role here, as do a pack of other film festival favorites, including Good Time director Benny Safdie, Frank Mosley, and Craig Butta.

But more than a homage to Defa’s friends, this movie furthers a legacy of productivity and influence in these filmmakers’ microbudget community(s). This is as important as the jokes in Person to Person, which would be disposable were they not installed in what is really a virtual shrine to American indie cinema with a sort of abashed humility.

How long this particular filmmaker’s shy warmth will last is hard to estimate, especially considering that Person to Person sold after its world premiere at Sundance to Magnolia Pictures. Defa’s future projects will surely lure even more famous mainstream talent. I therefore choose to consider it a beautiful anomaly, and to treasure it, while I can.

Person to Person, a Magnolia Pictures release, is in theaters around the country. Images courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

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