While gems like “Lingua Franca,” “Tangerine,” and “Pose” have given face to transgender women of color through open, real love stories, trans romance movies are still in short supply. Director Danielle Lessovitz, a queer woman, attempts to expand that scope with her film “Port Authority,” starring Fionn Whitehead and Leyna Bloom. Unfortunately, her feature directorial debut falls short.
In “Port Authority,” native Pennsylvanian Paul (Whitehead) arrives in New York City to live with his half-sister Sara (Louisa Krause). The problem: She doesn’t show up, and Paul doesn’t know her address or phone number. He wanders the city, ultimately finding Lee (McCaul Lombardi) after a subway altercation with two men. The gruff, grimy Lee offers the newcomer a bed in a youth hostel and a job as a removal man: He empties the apartments of evicted tenants’ belongings. It’s a scummy gig, but one Paul needs. Lee’s homophobic crew also worries Paul, but it’s a community he believes he requires too. That all changes when he meets Wye (Bloom), a Black transgender woman he finds attractive.
Lessovitz’s “Port Authority” opens strongly as a trans-led love story but later crumbles under a cis-white male gaze that obscures the ball culture it hopes to illuminate.
The first half of the romance is perfectly sketched: Paul doesn’t have a family. Rather he arrives in New York City as a parolee seeking a fresh start. From the first opening shot, Whitehead’s striking features elicit an ambiguity: His tiny hooped earring, his lush, curly hair, his heavy gait, and stoic yet innocent gaze. The features belie his anger issues, his insecurities. While staying at the youth hostel, Paul finds himself drawn to the dancing Tekay (Devon Carpenter). The young man follows the performer to the ball, where he locks eyes with Wye. And though her family, the House of McQueen, warns against approaching Paul, Wye can’t stay away.
Whitehead and Bloom have wonderful chemistry together. There’s real tenderness whenever the lips of this wide-eyed Midwesterner meets the world-wary big city girl. Whitehead’s physical presence, the way he can fill the silence with a wealth of delicacy, jumps out. And Bloom equally impresses. When “Port Authority” premiered at Cannes, Bloom became the first trans woman of color in the festival’s history to lead a feature. The assuredness Bloom displays in her performance as Wye is impressive. How present she is. How giving she is to Whitehead and him in return. Their lone sex scene, rendered with a light touch by cinematographer Jomo Fray, is likewise open and unabashedly intimate.
“Port Authority” plays strongest when adding new textures to the pair’s burgeoning love affair. It further succeeds when embedding itself in Wye’s house: We luxuriate in this community as these gay Black men support each other, plan and rehearse for their next performances, and party in the blue lights of drag balls. Lessovitz’s efforts to juxtapose this pure tight-knit family to the toxic homophobic crew Lee surrounds himself with, even if it’s severely underdeveloped, are appreciated. Both provide Paul with space, a proto-family, but only one is totally healthy.
The second half of “Port Authority,” however, underwhelms. Similar to Paul, Lessovitz is an outsider to the ball scene, and it shows. She struggles to center this Black queer community and totally sidelines Wye. Rather, she relegates both to plot devices for Paul’s self-exploration. The film decidedly takes on a cis-white male gaze as we watch this bumbling interloper put these vulnerable Black people in danger. See, Paul is a liar. And his lies carry inevitable consequences. These looming repercussions give the second half of the romance an air of predictability. The only question is what sort of redemptive arc Lessovitz will offer the character as he overcomes his teeming gay panic.
The fairytale conclusion isn’t wholly believable. Mostly because it feels so unearned, so neat. Paul invades a space not meant for him, appropriates the positives of a culture that isn’t his and puts both in harm’s way. If the director didn’t have Whitehead and Bloom’s incredible acting, the ending would have struck with a hollower thud. Instead, the film merely stands as a disappointing bait and switch. “Port Authority” isn’t a transgender-led love story. But another short-sighted film using Black folks as a lesson for ignorant white outsiders. [C-]
“Port Authority” arrives in select theaters today and will be on VOD on June 1.