Cannes 2019 review: Port Authority (Danielle Lessovitz)

Paul (Fionn Whitehead), a twenty-year-old from the Midwest who has grown up in the foster care system, heads to New York City looking for independence. According to Paul’s aunt, his half-sister is supposed to meet him once he arrives so that he can move in with her as he gets on his feet, but he is ultimately left waiting in the bus terminal. Homeless and with nowhere he can find safe shelter in which to spend the night, Paul sleeps on a subway car and is mugged for his phone and baseball cap, until Lee (McCaul Lombardi) steps in to defend him. As Lee cleans up Paul’s bloody nose, he leans in as if to kiss him, only to jeer, “You’re not a faggot, are you? You never can tell anymore.” As a beautiful woman of colour with braided hair, dancing in the street amidst a company of New York City ballroom dancers of the “Kitty-kat, kitty-kat, kitty-kat, POW!” variety, catches Paul’s eye, this possibility is quickly dismissed.

Lee welcomes Paul into his group of friends, helping him to procure a bed in a homeless shelter, and helping him make a little extra cash by moving the belongings of people being evicted because they can no longer afford the rent for their apartments. On one of his nights off Paul wanders into a small gay club, where the girl from the street and her friends are practicing their poses, spins, duck walks and dips. Paul is the only white person in the room among a sea of people of colour: one of them warns him to leave. “You don’t belong here: you have the rest of the city; don’t invade our space.” As Paul leaves, the girl from the street catches up with him to apologize on behalf of her brother, and he treats her to a slice of pizza from a nearby parlour. Her name is Wye (“Like the letter?” he asks. “No, like the letter,” she corrects), and she “could be a model,” he tells her. Feeling like she is about to be played, Wye establishes some rules: he needs to be totally honest with her about anything she asks him.

Before long, he is showing up to walk her home from dance practices, and sharing his first kisses with her on the fire escape at her apartment as they hide from the landlord (her lease allows for only three people to occupy the space, when in actuality another seven of her closest friends routinely crash there). Eventually, Paul joins Wye and her friends at a ballroom competition where she is competing in a “Face” category for the first time, after having previously walked in “Runway” categories. “Can anyone compete?” Paul asks one of the dancers. “No, this is a category for trans girls,” he is told: it finally dawns on Paul that he has been dating a trans woman this whole time. “Why wouldn’t you tell me that?” he snaps at her. “You never asked,” she tells him, continuing to explain “You need to take a look around you,” when he argues that he shouldn’t have to ask a question that he didn’t know he needed to be asking. Wye’s only secret (that, to be fair, she hasn’t intentionally withheld from him) is out in the open: now would be a good time for Paul to tell her that there are many things that he hasn’t been honest with her about (namely hiding his homelessness from her, telling Wye that he has been living with his sister). It’s always only a matter of time before the truth surfaces, and as Paul continues not to be forthright with her, there’s the looming possibility that he is going to end up losing her.

It’s a familiar story: Boy Meets Girl. And in this case, some viewers will understandably feel frustrated that the narrative favours the perspective of “Boy”, and that it is difficult to recall any scenes where Wye need not share the screen with Paul in order to appear. Ironic, given that there is one scene where as Wye privately dances for Paul, she explains to him, “I’m taking my space back: the space that I haven’t been given.” And, even to momentarily put aside Wye’s less frequently explored perspective as a trans woman of colour, while Paul is by no means uninteresting (he is a man of few words, and seems to have trouble expressing his complicated emotions, though his pleading, defensive, and scared eyes convey more than he is willing to share, and show things about himself that he probably has not yet even realized), Wye is articulate and confident, and as a woman who owns every inch of her body and appears to have a steadfast understanding of the person that she is, this feels like a missed opportunity to see more about her than what is offered. It would be probing to see what work is like for her, what she enjoys in her free time, or what her relationships with her friends are like when Paul is not around, or what it is like to walk down the street alone, in a world that still is not completely safe for her. Perhaps because of its short running time, Port Authority makes an innocent misstep in prioritizing Paul’s journey of self-discovery, because Wye already operates with total agency and self-security. But in its contrasting of Paul’s self-discovery with Wye’s strong sense of self, values, and goals, and especially the confidence that allows Wye to be fully open with Paul (he is terrified of rejection that may come if he shares the details of his life’s circumstances for which he feels shame), Port Authority succeeds in demonstrating the perils of what can happen to a new love, if it doesn’t begin with a foundation of total mutual honesty. And, as one of Wye’s friends will ultimately share with Paul, “Sometimes we can love someone else with our entire being, but that doesn’t mean that they are ours to own.”

Without making excuses for the missed opportunities in its consideration of Wye, it is also important to commend Port Authority for its abundance of virtues: it is an assured and compelling feature debut for Danielle Lessovitz, that with any justice should be propelling its lead actress Leyna Bloom into super-stardom. Her debut performance, and as a co-lead who emotionally carries her film, is natural and unaffected, and commands the screen with intelligence, authority, and dignity, as she immediately delivers a performance that would be the crown jewel in most other actresses’ careers. Bloom would be a welcome lead in any romantic drama, and her charisma and talent would be wasted by limiting her to films about the trans experience. Bloom’s assertive screen presence works beautifully with the uncertainty and questioning that lies beneath Whitehead’s superficial distance and reticence, and they share a mesmerizing and surprisingly delicate chemistry that is magnified by the novelty of seeing the backbone and leadership in their relationship lie on the side of its female half.

Port Authority may not be the film that in one fell swoop breaks all the ground and masters all that needs to be accomplished in the representation of trans stories, but it already feels like a landmark film in this endeavor towards inclusivity. This is a film that treats its central romance with the respect, passion, accessibility, and romantic stakes that are automatically given to the heteronormative stories which dominate the genre. It’s one step in the right direction, wedging its foot in the door of subverting the mainstream, opening it for more stories like this to continue to finesse, or just even be told, as they begin to claim their space.