'Port Authority' Review: A Story Focused on the Wrong Character
Port Authority opens with Paul (Fionn Whitehead) with a suitcase, walking through the titular New York bus terminal, calling someone that doesn’t pick up the phone. No one walking through the station has seen the woman pictured on the phone, either. Paul’s on his own.
Paul briefly steps outside the station and catches the eye of Wye (Leyna Bloom), who is hanging out with her rag-tag group of dancing friends. But Paul is still too shocked to be on his own, and having nowhere else to go, he tries to sleep on a subway train. Harassed then attacked by a couple of homophobic jerks, Paul is rescued by Lee (McCaul Lombardi) who sets him up with a bed in a shelter and offers him work.
So starts the story of Paul coming to New York and eventually finding a family of sorts. The bad news is that the film is more focused on Paul and his emotional journey, rather than Wye, who is frankly much more interesting.
Make no mistake, this first feature from writer-director Danielle Lessovitz is a beautiful film, and features a terrific performance from Leyna Bloom as Wye, the trans woman that Paul falls for. As a trans woman herself, Bloom brings a grounded honesty to Wye that made it easy to see why Paul would find her attractive. But although Whitehead gives us glimpses that Paul has anger-based self-control issues, we never really get a sense of what Wye sees in him.
The New York as shot by cinematographer Jomo Fray is alternately dreamlike and forbidding, depending on who Paul is spending time with. The New York of Lee and his scammy moving crew is sharply off-putting and cold; you feel like you want to head away from wherever Lee was as soon as possible. The New York of Wye and her kiki ballroom crowd is just a sharp, but it’s warmer, almost seductively inviting.
Since this is mostly Paul’s story, we see him bounce between the two worlds. On the one hand Lee and his “moving” crew that are so homophobic that the portrayal borders on satire, but that’s how Paul makes money.
He’s a young man on the margins that no one seems to want, and so it’s easy to understand the appeal of Lee’s offer of both work, friendship, and even hints of a real future. On the other hand, the straight, white Paul has inserted himself into a gay ballroom scene populated almost exclusively by Black and Latinx dancers. But we never really understand why Paul is so drawn to this scene.
Lombardi’s Lee hits just the right combination of charm and danger. He’s very reassuring to Paul, and it’s easy to understand why Lee is able to get his crew to work for him.
But Lombardi also carries just enough menace for the viewer to really fear what Lee is capable of. In fact, it becomes pretty clear that Lee is even capable of murder, but he’s the kind of guy that, if pressed, would smile and reassuringly tell you that some questions you really don’t want answered.
The biggest frustration with this story isn’t just that it’s about Paul, although that is definitely a problem. At this point, the story of a bro-dude learning about gay culture isn’t a novelty anymore. No, the biggest issue is that Paul is just underdeveloped as a character.
We never really learn why he’s interested in the ballroom scene to begin with, and we really never understand what Wye sees in him. As portrayed by Whitehead, Paul isn’t bad looking, but there’s not much to him past that.
That’s not to say that the movie doesn’t have some good things to offer; unlike ‘The Crying Game,’ when Paul finds out that Wye is a trans woman, that moment isn’t the defining turn of the story. In fact, he gets over it fairly quickly. And Wye draws boundaries with him that a lesser movie would shy away from.
Lessovitz is fairly smart about teaching Paul about the challenges (and even dangers) that he unknowingly brings into Wye’s life. But those could have worked just as well if the film was entirely about Wye, and her own conflict in being torn between Paul and her safer ballroom scene. In focusing on Paul, we spend too much time on a very familiar story, instead of the far more intriguing Wye.