Sundance 2017: 'Person to Person' + 'Landline'

Person to Person (2017)

At Sundance, the indie dramas Person to Person and Landline take markedly different approaches to bring their eccentric characters to life.

Person to Person

Director: Dustin Guy Defa
Cast: Michael Cera, Abbi Jacobson, Tavi Gevinson, Philip Baker Hall
Year: 2017
US Release date: 2017-01-20


Director: Gillian Robespierre
Cast: Jenny Slate, John Turturro, Edie Falco, Abby Quinn
Year: 2017
US Release date: 2017-01-20

It might be argued that every life is inconsequential on a cosmic scale. It could also be argued that each life is a beautiful and delicate justification that gives the cosmos purpose. Neither of these ideas holds in Dustin Guy Defa’s debut feature, Person to Person, in which characters' lives appear to be so slight as to be almost imperceptible.

Based upon Defa's short film of the same name, Person to Person is a slice-of-life dramedy that overlooks the sort of minutiae that usually make the genre compelling. Five different New York stories plod along, sometimes intersecting in mildly stimulating ways, but mostly gasping beneath the weight of their own monotony. Only two of the five-story threads offer memorable moments, while the other three struggle to find any sense of rhythm or personality.

In the first story thread, Phil (Michael Cera) is a newspaper reporter who moonlights as a bassist for a heavy metal band called Cock Killer. He hires an assistant, Claire (Abbi Jacobson), ostensibly to help him investigate the death of a man who may have been murdered by his wife. Unsurprisingly, Phil's true motivation is to meet chicks, seducing them with his wit and wicked metal riffs. Cera and Jacobson share a low-key chemistry that makes you crave better material to showcase their acting talents. Claire's awkwardness complements Phil's weaselly affect, as he pushes her into one uncomfortable interrogation after another. The clues they gather during their investigation eventually lead them into another plotline about a watchmaker (Philip Baker Hall) and the geriatric crew who frequents his shop.

Another thread involves a vinyl collector named Bene (Bene Coopersmith), duped into buying a fake bootleg of a Charlie Parker record. The eccentric Bene doggedly hunts the forger, occasionally stopping to ask people what they think of his garish new shirt. Though Coopersmith struggles mightily to deliver stilted dialogue, he also brings some much-needed energy to the proceedings.

The remaining plotlines, including a listless love story about Bene’s depressed roommate and the seemingly random tribulations of two disaffected teenage girls, fall completely flat. Most of this can be attributed to Defa’s lethargic storytelling and pacing, but none of the cast, apart from Cera and Jacobson, provide much heat, either. Neither does Person to Person immerse you in a world that yields truth and poignancy through revealing mundane or memorable details.

Unfortunately, Defa struggles with nearly every facet of the filmmaking process. His dialogue is too precious to feel genuine, and his characters are too idiosyncratic to be relatable. He does manage to capture the look of a small New York City borough, but it’s little more than window dressing. It’s evident that Person to Person loves its goofy characters, as each is portrayed with warmth and dignity. Sadly, spending time with them feels like enduring the first listless hours of a party before the interesting people finally arrive.

Edie Falco, Jenny Slate, and Abby Quinn in Landline (2017)

Unlike Person to Person, Gillian Robespierre's Landline is a beautifully observed, handsomely acted meditation on love and fidelity. Here, multiple details simmer with emotional tension, lives funneled through an artistic prism, so they feel safe for us to consume without fear of upset or turmoil.

Dana (Jenny Slate) is engaged to marry Ben (Jay Duplass). They shower together, attend open mic jam sessions (this film is set in 1995), and enjoy browsing trendy catalogs for things they can’t possibly afford. They’re hopelessly grounded and deeply in love. So why is Dana compelled to sleep with her old college boyfriend, Nate (Finn Wittrock)? For that matter, why is Dana's father (John Turturro) compelled to cheat on her mother (Edie Falco)? These are the baffling decisions that radically alter the compasses of our lives.

Bound together by summer houses and familial obligations, Dana's parents share a real love, even as it metastasizes into something unrecognizable. And then there is Ali (Abby Quinn), Dana's precocious 17-year-old sister who watches Oprah. She observes the infidelities swirling around her and wonders if love is worth the bother. It is, but she’s already learning that there's a steep price to pay.

While Robespierre's 2013 debut film, Obvious Child, is rewarding, if somewhat uneven, this film rolls effortlessly from one absorbing resolution to the next. Sometimes that resolution is an admission that collapses entire worlds. Other times, it's a stalemate, an implicit understanding that living to fight another day is the ultimate victory. Thanks largely to her understated dialogue and humor, Robespierre makes each scene feel equally important.

For all of its strengths, Landline also has its share of indie drama pitfalls. There’s not one, but two dance sequences (including one of the synchronized swimming variety), and it tends to send two characters off to share quiet moments, which makes for a somewhat static mise-en-scène. But, even as the film provides no easy answers to the questions it poses -- why do people stay together or cheat, stagnate or thrive? -- it does offer intriguing formulations. Slate follows her lauded performance from Obvious Child by becoming “the living embodiment of constipation” as Dana.

Every smirk, giggle, and snort reveals a new layer of vulnerability for the world to exploit. She and Quinn, in particular, share a fragile on-screen harmony in which the sisters alternate between who will play the wiser sibling, and who's in need of support. Yet, Quinn never comes across as smug or obnoxious. She only helps to build an accumulation of moments bound together with humor and hurting, making Landline the work of a young filmmaker poised to do something special.

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