Nearly 30 years after “The Crying Game” depicted a man’s revulsion at discovering his partner was trans, “Port Authority” sets the record straight. When Paul (Fionn Whitehead) learns that ballroom dancer Wye (Lenya Bloom) is a “femme girl” soon after their romance has blossomed, he doesn’t retch or try to flee. The pair engage in a levelheaded debate about the ethics of communication, and then he more or less gets over it.
Director Danielle Lessovitz’s proficient debut follows a lot of familiar beats, with the template for a gritty, naturalistic New York City love story about inner-city troublemakers done many times before. (Executive produced by Martin Scorsese, it may as well take place in his expanded universe.) Yet her ability to address the drama’s specific hook in measured terms enables this scrappy little movie to strike a quietly progressive note.
“Kids” by way of “Paris is Burning,” Lessovitz’s story reorients the perspective of a straight white guy from the midwest by turning him into the outsider. When Paul first steps off a bus in midtown, having fled a rough upbringing in various foster homes, he expects to see his sister waiting for him. Instead, he’s left to wander the terminal, where he discovers a group of bubbly vogueing pals hanging out on the street. One of them is Wye, whose soft features and genial presence instantly draw him in. Whitehead, in his first major lead role since “Dunkirk,” spends much of the movie gazing at Wye with quiet fascination, and the understated evolution of his sexual desire carries the movie through some of the more schematic moments in the story to come.
Before Paul links up with Wye, he goes into hermit mode, wandering the city subways in search of a place to sleep. It doesn’t take long before he’s mugged, then rescued by fast-talking street urchin Lee (McCaul Lombardi, who follows up roles in “American Honey” and “Patti Cake$” with another mischievous alpha male). When Paul finally tracks down his sister and she refuses to welcome him in, he crashes with Lee at a local shelter, before circling back with Wye as he tracks her to her voguing studio and begins making his moves.
So far, so conventional. But the nature of Wye’s gender identity should be obvious to anyone paying attention to her surroundings, so the truth only comes as a twist for Paul; for most audiences, the suspense of the movie’s first half stems from how he figures out that truth, and what happens next. From there, the movie becomes an understated romance tinged with danger, less due to Wye’s situation than Paul’s own uncertainty. Slowly, he begins to challenge the heterosexual constructs baked into his worldview, as the tension between that world and the new one he discovers reaches a breaking point. “Port Authority” doesn’t build to some harrowing comeuppance, akin to “Boys Don’t Cry,” and instead chronicles Paul’s path toward sexual enlightenment, as well as the couple’s mutual fears about the repressive society around them.
Before it gets that far, however, the movie develops a striking chemistry between the pair. The knowledge of Wye’s gender identity even makes room for a charming window into Paul’s naivete. “I was in the navy,” she tells him early on, as he flirts back, “You look like a model.” Having confessed his attraction before realizing its implications, he sets the stage for an intriguing wakeup call.
“Port Authority” marks a strong debut for Lessovitz, who co-wrote the tense drama “Mobile Homes,” which tracked a broken family through dire conditions. With “Port Authority,” she once again burrows inside a persecuted world without pandering to it, mapping out the subculture while hitting a series of agreeable story beats on schedule. It’s not the most polished endeavor: Breakups and brawls arrive right on schedule, and the complete story belongs more to Paul than Wye — there are moments where the character does seem mostly to exist as a means of stimulating Paul’s wakeup call.
However, Bloom gives Wye such a dynamic screen presence that she often transcends the boundaries of the material. “You gotta look around,” Wye tells Paul. “You can’t just see things on the surface level.” Bloom sinks into this sort of dramatic truth-selling by grounding it in the character’s belief that Paul could become enlightened. As he develops a double-life with his unseemly pal Lee, blackmailing tenants who are behind on their rent, he’s trapped between the amoral survivalist mentality of his previous life and the prospects of a reboot.
That conundrum sets the stage for an endearing finale, which involves the use of the term “white boy realness” as a punchline that turns into something more. The laughter gives way to a meaningful assertion of Paul’s mindset as he comes to terms with his personal baggage. It’s a sincere effort that feels earned, and in its modest way, a deeply romantic gesture.
“Port Authority” premiered in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.