Cannes Hidden Gem: 'Port Authority' Showcases a Different Kind of Ballroom Love Story

Courtesy of Cannes
Leyna Bloom plays Wye, a member of the kiki ballroom scene, which focuses on younger queer people.

Lead actress Leyna Bloom becomes the first trans woman of color to star in a film at Cannes in Danielle Lessovitz’s feature debut.

In 2014, Danielle Lessovitz was brought to her first New York ball, where the LGBTQ community competes in glamorous dance and posing competitions. "I was watching someone doing a duckwalk — there was a sense of the person breaking and coming into being, as if the spirit and the body had separated for a moment," she says. "I was processing the death of my father around this time, and it was sort of transcendent for me. It stuck with me." It stuck with her so much that Lessovitz decided to make a film set in this subculture, which is not only a world of glam and drama, but also a safe haven for many LGBTQ youth who haven’t been able to find acceptance elsewhere.

Her film, Port Authority, is a love story that centers on 20-year-old Midwesterner Paul (Dunkirk’s Fionn Whitehead), who moves to New York and falls for a trans woman (Leyna Bloom). Since Lessovitz isn’t a part of the ballroom community, she made sure to recruit plenty of people who were, including script consultants like Aisha Diori, one of the founders of the kiki ballroom community. She also asked Jari Jones, a black trans woman who originally auditioned for a part, to join as a producer.

"We are showing this dynamic of chosen family, and how this community has survived and is thriving," says Jones. "It was important to me as someone who is of color, and trans, to show that family dynamic on such a large platform."

When it came time to cast, Lessovitz and Jones scoured the ballroom scene and met with hundreds of women in a process that took a year and a half. "Not only did we want to cast someone who identifies as trans, but also someone who has a deep link to the ballroom community and understands this world inside and out," says Lessovitz.

On the day that Bloom, a model who’s worked with H&M and walked in Paris Fashion Week, came in, Lessovitz did the reading with her. "There is a powerful scene where Paul confronts her about being trans," she says. "I really felt like she’s been in this situation before, and she can bring the pain and the strength that she’s developed throughout her life to the performance. It was just a no-brainer, really." When Port Authority debuts in Un Certain Regard on May 18, it’ll be the first film to play at Cannes with a trans woman of color as the lead.

"It’s going to be a historical moment just because so much of our media has to do with the trauma of a black trans woman," says Jones. "So to see this idea that as a person she is deserving of love and respect — to see that on film is going to really be something extraordinary." 

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's May 15 daily issue at the Cannes Film Festival.