The Port Authority Bus Terminal on West 42nd Street in New York has a long and gritty history in movies as the point of entry to a multicultural world of excitement, hustle and danger. More than just a transit hub, it’s often a gateway to a new life, one that can be rewarding or punishing. In writer-director Danielle Lessovitz’s affectingly intimate first feature, which takes its title from that teeming transport complex, it serves to open up the world of a damaged young Pittsburgh transplant, played with raw emotional transparency beneath a veneer of toughness by Fionn Whitehead from Dunkirk.
Whitehead’s character, Paul, has his ideas of family, community and identity redefined, along with his defensive preconceptions of gender and sexuality, when he drifts into the queer subculture of the Kiki ballroom scene, drawn by a self-possessed African-American beauty named Wye (Leyna Bloom). One of her fellow house members — gay and trans youths of color who get together regularly between voguing balls to rehearse their fiercely attitudinized dance moves, poses and runway struts — describes what they do as taking back and owning the space denied them by the world. And Paul, despite his conditioned resistance, almost intuitively comes to see that he may have stumbled onto the sense of belonging that has remained so elusive in his life up to now.
The empowering self-expression of marginalized LGBTQ youth through the ballroom scene has been portrayed in a growing range of works — documentaries like Kiki, dramatic features like Saturday Church, TV series like Pose — all of them arguably godmothered by Jennie Livingston’s 1990 doc, Paris is Burning. Port Authority is a little fragile in terms of its narrative skeleton, at times tending to idle in place when it ought to be moving forward, but the film’s characters and world are drawn with immersive engagement, and the mood is transfixing.
When Paul steps off the bus in New York, his face marked from a recent fight with more to come, his half-sister Sara (Louisa Krause), who’s supposed to be meeting him, is a no-show. While figuring out what to do, he watches a cluster of young voguers practicing their moves on the steps outside the terminal, and Wye instantly catches his eye. But before they actually meet, Paul gets roughed up on a late-night subway and falls in with street-smart Lee (McCaul Lombardi), who runs a small crew of guys living out of a Lower East Side homeless shelter and doing shady work for local landlords — policing rent infractions, carrying out evictions and property repossession.
While Lee and his buddies don’t hold back on the homophobic slurs, the shelter is home to various types, including Tekay (Devon Carpenter), a gay black guy Paul recognizes from the group outside Port Authority. He follows him one night to an East Harlem ballroom practice session, where he sticks out as the white minority and is told he’s unwelcome. But Wye steps outside to talk to him. In a sweet meet-cute variation, she shares her nicotine patches with him and he buys her a pizza slice, inviting him to roll up for rehearsals next week to watch her.
We learn relatively little about Wye aside from the fact that she was in the Navy, and that there are eight members of her ballroom family illegally occupying an apartment designated for only three tenants. But fragments of Paul’s life are pieced together — his upbringing in foster homes, his anger issues, his sorrow at the false promises made by his biological mother and the fact that he never got to say goodbye before she died. Lessovitz keeps the details to a minimum, just enough to establish convincing emotional grounds for Wye’s response to this guarded stranger and Paul’s attraction, not just to her, but to the proud, raucous, joyously uninhibited family that surrounds and protects her.
Bloom’s limited experience as a screen actor shows at times, but there’s an authenticity, a sense of hard-won self-knowledge in her character — what Wye’s chosen brothers and sisters would call realness — that invests her performance with ease and authority, alongside a resplendent natural grace that the camera adores. Matched with Whitehead’s balance of fear and heady fascination as Paul starts falling for her, their quiet scenes together are lovely. His late discovery that Wye is a trans woman is handled with sensitivity and narrative plausibility, as is the way he then gravitates back toward her, melting into the romance in spite of his confusion.
Paul’s cautiousness about keeping a dividing line firmly in place between his interactions with Wye and family and those with Lee and his crew point to simmering conflict. Likewise, Paul’s elaborately constructed lies about living with Sara in the East Village, clearly feeling he has to create the illusion of stability to make Wye love him. Lessovitz follows through only partly on these strands in plotting that becomes untidy; the promised explosions and confrontations never fully materialize, though that ends up being both a weakness and a strength of the film. The key factor is that there’s sufficient feeling in the relationship to keep you rooting for them to make it work.
Cinematographer Jomo Fray gets in close amongst the characters, adding intensity to the personal scenes even if more visual breadth might have been welcome when the Kiki contestants are demonstrating their fabulousness. Ultimately, however, there’s a disarming gentleness to Port Authority, echoed in composer Matthew Herbert’s subtle score, that makes this story of love, family and self-discovery quite satisfying.
Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Leyna Bloom, McCaul Lombardi, Louisa Krause, Will Dufault, Stephen Cavalieri, Eddie Plaza, Taliek Jeqon, Devon Carpenter, Azza Melton, Christopher “Afrika” Quarles, Max Kpoyour, Pecious Ebony, Lawrence “Snookie” Taylor, Jari Jones, Courtney Marie McCotter, Brett Smith, Christopher Bizub, Sasha Morales, Rao Rampilla, Jon Trosky, Drew Leary
Production companies: Sikelia Productions, RT Features, Madeleine Films
Director-screenwriter: Danielle Lessovitz
Producers: Rodrigo Teixeira, Virginie Lacombe, Zachary Luke Kislevitz, Paris Kassidokostas-Latsis
Executive producers: Sophie Mas, Lourenco Sant’Anna, Efe Cakarel, Bobby Allen, Martin Scorsese, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Lawrence “Snookie” Taylor, Rodrigo Gutierrez, Frederic de Goldschmidt
Director of photography: Jomo Fray
Production designer: Emmeline Wilks-Dupoise
Costume designer: Algernal Gordon
Music: Matthew Herbert
Editors: Clemence Samson, Matthew C. Hart
Casting: Kate Antognini, Damian Bao
Sales: MK2 Films
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)