Port Authority boasts a thoughtful, intimate texture, but somewhat betrays its material in its character perspective.
Going into Port Authority, two outcomes feel equally likely: A) the film will be just wildly offensive, full of derogatory stereotypes about trans women and chasers, and reductive in its view of transphobia; or B) the film will be the trans equivalent of Green Book, an outwardly heartwarming but hollow story built more for appeasing cisgender audiences than the community it actually depicts. What writer-director Danielle Lessovitz delivers is, mercifully, not quite that simple. Her film follows an unlikely love story between Paul (Fionn Whitehead), the poster-child for young men left behind by the system and picked up by something far more nefarious, and Wye (Leyna Bloom), a Black trans woman immersed in the New York ballroom scene. Their love story — and stop me if you’ve heard this one before — helps Paul mature, teaching him what it means to belong and who he is as both a man and a lover; it’s yet another work that uses a marginalized woman as catalyst for a white man’s coming-of-age, and centering that same perspective over and over.
What distinguishes Port Authority, then, from the film it too easily could have been is the radical empathy with which Lessovitz leads. At no point does the film take cheap shots or easy wins, and, of all the places to start from, a story like this could do far worse than sincere compassion. The dynamic between Paul and Wye, so intrinsically and intimately tied to their material bodies and the secrets they hide from one another, helps make every touch linger in the mind, and Lessovitz leans quite artfully into this sensuality, managing to encapsulate a distinct type of first love, complete with the intensity and fear that make it feel so authentic. Coupled with a heightened atmosphere conjured by the ballroom setting and compelling performances from Whitehead and Bloom, Lessovitz’s sum vision is one that is, at times, truly spellbinding. While some of the depictions of toxic masculinity and homophobia feel a bit unsubtle, the film’s committed understanding of both sides of the fight makes for a narrative that is compelling and generous without falling into the didactic. Still, in narratives that tackle such complex, evolving social issues, nothing is ever quite so simple as that. For all its thoughtfulness and appreciable intimacy, Port Authority still fixes itself on a white, cisgender male voice, prioritizing his perspective on a vibrant, dynamic subculture instead of literally anybody else. The film is full of reminders of the danger that Paul represents, of the violence and aggression that is all too common in the world, but it doesn’t meaningfully engage with him or his whiteness beyond that. While Paul’s brief early glimpses of Wye and her friends voguing on the street and a dancer practicing in a stairwell are entrancing in their own right, these scenes remind us of exactly what the film is trying to avoid — its own inescapable voyeurism.