Dustin Guy Defa knows something about the zeitgeist: mainly, that to capture the spirit of our times one has to evoke the spirit of other times. Defa’s feature-length Person to Person, expanded from an earlier short, chooses New York in the 1970s as its nostalgic fulcrum. Shot on 16mm, Person to Person is a filtered film, in the Snapchat/Instagram meaning of that word, a gloss of reminiscence over a modern snapshot.
Snapshots are all we get with Person to Person; it’s an ensemble piece that resists the urge to weave together all its threads or resolve much of anything. At the end of the film, we aren’t left hanging so much as temporarily resting. Michael Cera plays a reporter named Phil, a role that could be goofy but that Cera injects with a whiff of something manipulative, even predatory. “You start to see it as a consistent, dependable, and unavoidable pattern,” he says of the endless human tragedy on display in New York City. This is as close as you will get to a thesis for Person to Person, that human drama is both endlessly nuanced and much the same, operatic and mundane. One of the film’s best moments, near the beginning, is a narrative bait and switch. The camera follows an arguing couple down the street, “What have you done with your life?” one half of the couple snaps, “Let’s see, I won a Guggenheim Fellowship,” the other says. Then, a character emerges from behind them on the sidewalk, and we break away. We leave one drama and enter another one, the implication being that anyone on the crowded street would take us down an equally dramatic path.
The paths Person to Person does take are these: a man named Bene buys a rare LP from a stranger; his friend Ray tries to set things right with his girlfriend Janet, of whom he has posted nudes online (the resolution of this storyline is the film’s major misstep—the mistake is thinking that embarrassing nudes of a man cause the same social damage they would for a woman. Not true). Elsewhere, two teenage girls skip school and have a reluctant double date; and a rookie journalist spends the day with her boss, investigating her first assignment, a suicide/possible murder that leads them to a watch repair shop and its taciturn owner. Plot isn’t slim so much as secondary. Mostly, we are here for texture, a gorgeous soundtrack, and the kind of atmosphere that is both soothing and inexplicably, beautifully sad.
For a film so set on understatement, both comedic and dramatic, Person to Person is surprisingly affecting. Tender moments, like when one character does laundry for a depressed friend, or when a remorseful man apologizes to his girlfriend, are all the more touching because they come in the midst of so much insouciance.
The dialogue is meandering and overwrought, in a way that will annoy some but makes a zinger really sing. The funniest line is actually a moment of silence, when two teenage girls decide to “stop talking about dicks and vaginas,” and then find they have nothing left to say.
Person to Person takes place in the present day, but the throwback look of the film means this requires some clarification; in one scene a character says, as if to the audience, “You don’t think we have the Internet? It’s the Internet, we have it.” The script goes to great lengths to explain one man’s “computer illiteracy,” and, amazingly, two reporters conduct an entire journalistic investigation without once using a computer. It’s all a bit twee, but once you accept the conceit, it is lovely and woozy to sink into a lo-fi non-reality, like a trip to a lake house or an enjoyable power outage.
What is the point of a film set in 2017 that looks like it was shot in 1976? Defa is interested in particularities, and the particular feeling of our time that he explores is deep nostalgia. The guarded earnestness of most of the characters is perhaps the most millennial mindset, even if not all of them are millennials. When confronted by something as overwhelming as the times we live in, or a city like New York, certain people react by cultivating a hermetic obsession with something else, tuning out the noise by turning up the volume on a single record. This is the world of Person to Person, it’s a film that comes to terms with the present day by drawing on the singular beauty of the past. One way to understand the magnitude of anything—love, fate, modernity—is to retreat from it. Finding meaning in a microcosm allows you to make sense of the larger world, and the master stroke of Person to Person is that it shows us how private life mimics the rhythms of society. Tiny instances of justice, mercy, and score settling, like when Bene chases a thief and steals back his money, and then some, are miniature rotations of fortune. One day in New York is as cyclical and momentous as a lifetime.
The thing about nostalgia is that it has an endless wellspring; give anything enough time, and the gloss of hindsight will make it beautiful. One moment, when a teenaged girl (Tavi Gevinson) sits down with her family, plays with the very idea of timeliness. Her father reads from a newspaper about the “unpredictable gyrations of the Moscow stock exchange” and her worried mother tells her she needs to eat breakfast. It’s a subtle moment, but it’s hard not to think how the past was not always quaint for the people living it, and that our troubled times will one day seem charming. When have mothers not been urging their moody children to eat breakfast? When have stock markets not been gyrating, or threatening to gyrate? More broadly, when has the world not seemed totally overwhelming to the people inhabiting it? The scene gives us nostalgia in the making, so that we question the fallacy of that feeling in the first place. That his film can do this while still rooting itself in the aesthetics of nostalgia proves that Defa can have his cake and understand all its layers too.