If Ryan Murphy’s FX series Pose relives the Paris is Burning era of New York’s ball culture as a melodramatic fantasia, then Danielle Lessovitz’ directorial debut Port Authority brings us to the sub-culture’s modern day in an intimate, social realist style. Executive produced by Martin Scorsese, Port Authority feels both refreshing and traditional; a non judgemental portrayal of a relationship between a transgender woman of colour and a cisgender white man, applied to a narrative with all the traditional obstacles to romantic happiness that you’d expect from an LGBT film.
It might not be groundbreaking, but there’s something about the way Lessovitz depicts her characters slowly falling for each other that feels rare in cinema. She understands how to represent the awkwardness of first dates, the power of the first kiss, and the joy of sexual intimacy in a manner that shows she clearly cares about these people, and wants to earnestly depict them falling in love – with every obstacle in their way making it all the more passionate as a result.
Fionn Whitehead stars as Paul, a 20 year old from Pittsburgh who moves to New York after being told he can move in with his half sister. Discovering that she doesn’t want him there, he winds up at a homeless shelter, where one of his roommates (Tekay, played by Devon Carpenter) is a member of a house that competes in underground kiki balls. Intrigued, Paul follows him one night and catches the eye of Wye (Leyna Bloom), and the pair quickly fall for each other. Unfortunately, there are obstacles stopping them from developing a deeper connection; Paul lies about living with his sister to avoid the truth of his living situation (and homophobic housemates), while Wye doesn’t disclose the fact she’s transgender, a non-issue that causes Paul to have initial doubts about taking their romance any further.
Port Authority is the first film in the history of Cannes to feature a trans woman of colour in the lead role, but the most significant factor is how the film doesn’t make this an issue. For me, the film’s one misstep was the moment it was revealed Paul never realised Wye was transgender, although as a naive kid moving to the big city, his ignorance of who gets to compete in balls can at least be justified within the narrative. Outside of this, Port Authority is simply about two people who fall for one another – but taking one of the oldest stories in the book and applying it here makes it feel fresh again. There may be too many dramas within the lives of the characters to label the film a straightforward romance, but their connection is Port Authority’s beating heart and soul. You want them to succeed, and, more importantly, will want to see Paul grow as a person in order to be a caring partner.
This latter point is important, as trans people are rarely depicted in happy relationships onscreen. When the closest thing to a trans relationship drama in the mainstream public consciousness is A Fantastic Woman, about a trans woman coming to terms with the death of her older partner, then it’s only natural to root for some positive onscreen representation of a group who are normally afforded only misery in their screen depictions. As trans people are frequently targeted by the media, it’s important to dramatise the real struggles many face – but why should that necessarily come at the expense as something as simple and as joyous as a romantic drama, that affords the chance of positive representation that largely remains illusive?
Port Authority is an attention grabbing debut film from Danielle Lessovitz, that offers romantic escapism without losing sight of the very real obstacles this couple have to face.