There’s a genre of indie films that once was only recognized by film festival directors and hardcore film festival-goers.
A “film festival movie” is just interesting enough — by virtue of cast, location, themes or the occasional “one big scene” — to get into film festivals. Most would never see the light of day outside of that circuit, unless they had that one or two big enough names in the cast to be marketed to lesser cable networks or home video. Netflix changed that model, and now more of these slight but slightly worthy dramedies and comedies and intimate romances have a chance to find an audience.
Hey, everybody’s favorite streaming service can’t get by with just anime and Bollywood fare, the go-to Netflix filler these days.
“Person to Person” fits this template, an inconsequential multi-character comedy that had just enough going for it to attract Michael Cera, Abbi Jacobson (“Broad City”), Philip Baker Hall, Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Michaela Watkins.
By “just enough going for it” I mean that writer-director Dustin Guy Defa wrote at least one half-meaty scene for most of the roles, and he was shooting in New York, where most of these actors live. Never under-estimate the value of convenience when you’re trying to cast your indie comedy.
Cera plays a socially awkward newspaper reporter/photographer inexplicably sending this freelancer/intern/utterly-unfit-to-do-the-job shrinking violet (Jacobson) into the investigation of a wife (Watkins, who did a year on “SNL”) who might have murdered her husband.
“Go with your instinct,” the too flirtatious/too gutless to do his own reporting Phil tells his protege.
“My instinct is to quit this job, run away and go home.”
A clocksmith (Hall) figures into this story, as does the clocksmith’s pal (Whitlock).
A too-smart, too articulate, ever-overthinking bi-curious teen (Tavi Gevenson) hangs out with her promiscuous pal after school, trying to get into the spirit of boy-chasing and makeout sessions.
And then there’s Ben (Bene Coopersmith), an avid vinyl collector, trader and dealer letting a friend, Ray (George Sample III) stay on his couch after a painful breakup. Ray posted naked pictures of his feckless ex — Marsha Stephanie Blake of “Orange is the New Black” — on the internet, and now he’s just waiting for her polite but no-nonsense brother (Okieriete Onaodowan) to come break his legs.
Writer-director Defa manages a few engaging exchanges, smart scenes and running gags. Mild-mannered Ben frets over his wardrobe choice for the day.
“Am I supposed to be wearing this shirt?”
He’s scraping by, and any money he picks up goes to courting his single-mom girlfriend. He commutes the cheapest way possible — by bike — circulating in his small world of LP aficionados.
Then we see him crossed in his efforts to buy a rare Charlie Parker “red vinyl” LP, and the enraged tiger comes out, with Guy treating us to a silly bicycle low-speed chase through the boroughs.
None of it adds up to much, with Guy shortchanging every single story and every interesting character by breaking away from those stories and characters for less interesting digressions and the characters who inhabit them.
About the best you can say for “Person to Person” is that Guy got it made, he sold it and he’ll probably get another shot at making a movie within the arcane world of record collecting, but not one about New York journalists competing on a salacious story or too-old-to-play teens talking their sexual curiosity to death.
MPAA Rating: Unrated, with violence, adult situations, profanity
Cast: Michael Cera, Abbi Jacobson, Tavi Gevensen, George Sample III, Bene Coopersmith, Philip Baker Hall, Isiah Whitlock Jr.
Credits: Written and directed by Dustin Guy Defa. A Magnolia release.
Running time: 1:24