Synopsis: Paul’s momentary encounter with Wye, a trans woman of color, leaves the 20-year-old Midwesterner transfixed by her beauty and confidence. But as the two learn more about each other, Paul’s false narratives begin to surface and the double life he lives must be reconciled.
Stars: Fionn Whitehead, Leyna Bloom, McCaul Lombardi, Jari Jones, Devon Carpenter, Eddie Plaza, Louisa Krause, Christopher Quarles, Taliek Jeqon
Director: Danielle Lessovitz
Running Length: 101 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: So much for that whole “wokeness” thing, I guess. Maybe that’s being a tad harsh toward the filmmakers of Port Authority but there’s something more than a little off-putting about watching a movie released in 2021 that features a vibrant LGBTQ+ cast in supporting roles of a love story between a trans woman and a “straight” white male. When the film is seemingly about this male’s journey of discovery it’s kind of, well, lame in this current climate because it feels as if that story, that angle, has been looked at and analyzed from every conceivable vantage point already in film, on stage, and recently on television in the never-quite-got-its-due series Pose. Who needs to see this problematic arc of redemption via self-aware reflection play out yet again, albeit with some memorable performances that almost take your mind off the main sticking point?
With Martin Scorsese serving as executive producer, this NYC-set romantic drama seems to start off on the right foot as we meet up with Paul (Fionn Whitehead, Dunkirk), newly arrived from Pennsylvania at the titular transit station expecting to be picked up by his half-sister. Scouring the location to see if she’s as lost as he feels, he steps outside for a smoke and sees a group of twenty-somethings that give off a different kind of energy he can’t quite put his finger on. Amongst them is Wye (Leyna Bloom), and for the briefest of moments the two lock eyes and it’s obvious we’ve witnessed that rare spark of attraction…but it’s only for moment because Paul has to get find a way to his sister’s apartment and Wye’s group is off into the charged bustle of the evening crowds.
As Paul acclimates to the city, he finds a place to stay at a grungy hostel and manages to quickly find work from the first person that showed him kindness, a tatted homophobe named Lee (McCaul Lombardi). Lee is in the business of intimidating low-income minority families that have landlords threating to evict them, forcing them either to pay their rent or sacrifice their possessions and soon Paul is participating in these illegal actions. Not so far away, Wye is a popular star in the ballroom scene and a member of the House of McQueen, performing in nightly contests that lift up queer society and with exquisite performances. Delirious displays of fashion, runaway walks, dancing, and severe attitude, these ballroom scenes are exclusive and not a spectator sport.
By chance, one of the ballroom participants is staying at the same hostel as Paul and one night Paul follows them to an event where he again comes in contact with Wye. This time, they don’t let opportunity pass them by and a flirtation turns into a full-blown romance after hanging out a few times. Now, I don’t want to say Paul is slow on the uptake but after hanging out with Wye and her “brothers” at their “house” (apartment), he apparently gets the idea that the guys might be gay but has no clue that Wye is trans. Unfortunately, this isn’t the extent of Paul’s limited exposure to life outside of his own bubble, as we’ll witness over the next days where he systematically dismantles several relationships he has – work, love, family, and all because he can’t be honest, really honest, with any of them. At least someone like Lee wears his misogyny and bigotry loud and proud and Wye keeps it real above all else. Anytime Paul is faced with owning up to something or providing a false excuse he tends to always opt for the lie – and this is the character we’re supposed to root for?
Writer/director Danielle Lessovitz has one half of a good movie going on here and when Port Authority is in its better half, it has a liveliness that is attractive and intoxicating, much like NYC itself. When it strays into the uglier parts of the action, it can feel like the end of a long day walking around the city in the heat…exhausting and chafing. I just did not care what sort of issues Paul had to work through because it was becoming more obvious he was using some of his experiences with Wye and her family to help him through that. Not finding much love or support in his own life, he acts as a sort of parasite until he takes too much, and people get hurt.
The other side of the coin has Whitehead and Bloom turning in tender and often terrific performances amidst all the noise, creating genuine chemistry that goes a long way in selling what Lessovitz can’t quite convey in her screenplay. After Voyagers, this is another performance from Whitehead where he’s emotionally broken and needs the attention of another to find his way back to being whole and Bloom is just the right actress to make that fix work. I could have used a few mores scenes with the two of them together (or even of Bloom doing her own thing) but this is firmly Paul’s story and, like it or not, you’re stuck with him for the good scenes as well as the bad.
Every time we left Wye and her family to tag along with Paul and his gross friends, all I was thinking about was how much fun the others must have been having. If only Lessovitz had opted to tell that story instead, jettisoning Paul’s acceptance of himself by seeing what he could become through Lee’s deplorable work in favor of a deeper dive into Wye’s ballroom scene. That would have made Port Authority more of a destination worth looking forward to.