REVIEW: Port Authority [2021]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 101 minutes
    Release Date: May 28th, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: Momentum Pictures
    Director(s): Danielle Lessovitz
    Writer(s): Danielle Lessovitz

Players don’t tell the truth.

When Paul (Fionn Whitehead) left Pittsburgh for New York City, he believed he had family ready to welcome him with open arms. His half-sister Sara (Louisa Krause) wasn’t at the station when he arrived, though, and Aunt Mary didn’t give him a phone number or address with which to contact her. So he went on a train to sleep the night only to get accosted by two men and saved by another. Lee (McCaul Lombardi) was a stranger, but he lent a helping hand and provided a place to stay. Maybe he could be the family Paul needed to rebuild a life outside the shadow of a violent, trauma-filled past as long as he played by Lee’s macho, heteronormative rules—something he didn’t anticipate becoming problematic.

Writer/director Danielle Lessovitz‘s Port Authority pulls no punches when it comes to this reality as Paul’s combativeness, homophobia, and mistrust are put on full display. Besides a quick smile while watching a group of LGBTQ+ ball scene dancers that’s more for the woman standing amongst them (Leyna Bloom‘s Wye) then their unbridled and enthusiastic freedom, this newcomer is exactly the kind of guy Lee recruits as freelance repo men for landlords seeking to recoup late rent checks. If not for Tekay (Devon Carpenter) practicing a similar routine to the ones he saw at the station late at night while the rest of Lee’s homeless shelter was asleep, Paul probably would have suppressed his conscience’s desire to question his actions and continued down a path of self-destruction.

He chooses to follow Tekay instead—right into an underground showcase of “walkers” with Wye in attendance. More a family than his own blood (Sara refuses to even let Paul in to meet her husband) and the white cis men who’ve taken him under wing (Lee and company are never shy from making certain he’s not gay whenever he rejects their current use for him), this community is pure love and support. They are so protective of their own that one man confronts Paul to ask whether he’s lost because this was their space. This was where they come to be themselves away from prying, judgmental eyes and unprovoked violence at the hands of those who dismiss them as “lesser” than themselves. And Paul definitely fit that bill.

The question becomes whether that truth is a superficial prejudice or an immoveable piece of Paul’s identity. We’ve seen him divert his eyes when Lee verbally attacks Tekay. We’ve seen Paul actively attempt to divide himself in two so he can simultaneously exist in a world of allyship and one without. Is his fascination with the ball scene and the gay men that Wye lives with (her “brothers” under a den mother’s roof) solely a means to win her over? Or does he honestly see them as human beings worthy of that which Lee refuses to share? And if it is the latter, will he be strong enough to let both sides know? Because a white lie for him could mean a death sentence for Wye.

Why? Because despite the fact that Paul is cluelessly unaware due to his obvious naivete when it comes to the LGBTQ+ community, Wye is a trans woman (Port Authority is the first film with a trans woman of color in the lead to compete at Cannes). It therefore only takes one misstep on Paul’s behalf to put her in real danger. That means lying about living with his sister so as not to admit he’s homeless—an act that could have her believing knocking on Sara’s door is safe when it certainly is not. It means lying about the fact that he works with the people who are trying to kick her and her brothers out of their apartment based on prejudiced regulations. So much can go wrong.

What makes Lessovitz’s film so great isn’t that she allows these truths into what could have been just a sweet, inclusive romance, but that she lets their impact be felt. The transgressions that occur on-screen only seem minor to those with the privilege to not have to worry about their fallout. Just because Paul has the luxury of asking for forgiveness in the aftermath of his lies being unraveled doesn’t mean Wye has the luxury of accepting. His love doesn’t excuse his choices and her love can never be enough to ignore the consequences of them. That’s why what she and her brothers share is so much more than just a group of friends living together. Paul’s relationships with Sara and Lee prove purely transactional and selfish by comparison.

And he must confront that reality. He must accept the consequences of what he does and work to change himself and the environment in which he hopes to live. This isn’t about Paul finding clarity and a happy ending. It’s about him seeing what Wye and her family has had to do just to survive and acknowledging his complicity in creating that struggle. He will have to sit down with Sara and talk to her without believing he’s owed something. He will have to take off the blinders and recognize that what Lee has supplied him can’t compare to what he’s taken from the people Paul has begun to love. And he’ll have to listen when told that that love he’s cultivated might only be received through distance.

Both Whitehead and Bloom are fantastic in their roles because they approach each as an individual rather than a whole. Where a generic romance would care more about who they are together in order to sell the fantasy, Lessovitz ensures they exist separately first. That doesn’t mean they don’t have a surplus of chemistry or an unforgettable level of anguish once they are able to step outside of their union and know that lust can’t be enough. Wye as a character is perhaps used more as a catalyst for Paul’s awakening than an equal narratively speaking, but Bloom never lets that stop her from breathing life into the part. It’s crucial for us to believe the subsequent transformation that allows Whitehead to breathe without the threat of suffocation.

[1] (L-R) Leyna Bloom as Wye and Fionn Whitehead as Paul in the drama PORT AUTHORITY, a Momentum Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Momentum Pictures.
[2] (L-R) Fionn Whitehead as Paul and McCaul Lombardi as Lee in the drama PORT AUTHORITY, a Momentum Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Momentum Pictures.
[3] (L-R) Fionn Whitehead as Paul and Leyna Bloom as Wye in the drama PORT AUTHORITY, a Momentum Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Momentum Pictures.

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