“Port Authority,” a somewhat affecting New York transgender romance, is a little late to the “guy doesn’t realize the performer he’s attracted is transgender” party. “The Crying Game,” and “Victor/Victoria” are ancient history, after all.
But writer-director Danielle Lessovitz’s debut feature has New York grit and some new genre wrinkles that make it work. It’s “Midnight Cowboy” by way of “Paris is Burning,” and far more interesting than its ludicrous “How could you not know?” Achilles heel.
We meet Paul, played by Fionn Whitehead of “Voyagers” and “Dunkirk,” at the titular bus terminal in Manhattan, a hapless 20 year-old from Pittsburgh who gets his first taste of the city asking for help finding his “half-sister,” who was supposed to pick him up.
New Yorkers don’t want to know, don’t want to know you. They don’t even want to help when he’s mugged on the subway. At least Lee (McCaul Lombardi) is man enough to interrupt the beating.
He’s outgoing enough to offer advice — “The 2-Train isn’t any good for sleeping on. Try the A-Train next time.”
Before this bloodied first night in the city is done, Lee has gotten Paul into a shelter and hooked him up with “moving” work.
But Paul’s head has been turned by the street dancers putting on a show on Times Square. A lithe group of athletic, focused and seriously effeminate Black men, they have a “sister” that gets his attention. “Wye, like the letter,” she calls herself. And soon Paul doesn’t just have steady work, but a woman (Leyna Bloom) to shower his attention on.
Her brothers call him a “chaser,” but he’s tolerated, hanging around “House McQueen” rehearsals choreographed and coached by “Mother,” aka “Ma Queen,” (Christopher Quarrie). Wye?
“Single, but unavailable.” Her words say “Not interested,” but every toss of her braids and moment of shy, lingering eye contact suggest she’s getting into his “white boy realness.”
Pulling Paul is an altogether different direction is Lee, whose “job” is leading his fellow homeless toughs on eviction visits. They check out of the shelter, get in a moving truck and perform a “service” for New York’s slumlords. He yells “IMMIGRATION” and pounds on the door, they barge in and start moving delinquent tenants out.
Not exactly righteous work. But Paul’s head and heart aren’t in it. And he’s not picking up “I was in the Navy” and other clues from Wye, such as the company she keeps, the drag contest she and her brothers are rehearsing for.
Wye’s first big romantic gesture? Sharing a Nicoderm patch, to help the kid cut down on his smoking. Paul’s? He tells her “the truth.”
“If somebody doesn’t really tell you ‘good-bye,’ it’s kind of like you’re waiting for them to show up, even though you know they won’t.”
But Paul’s “truth” leaves an awful lot out.
The kid’s naivete is “Port Authority’s” toughest sell, first scene to last. He lurches into New York without even a phone number of this “sister” he hasn’t seen in ages, doesn’t know better than to sleep on the subway, and can’t figure out the “femme” he’s smitten by isn’t on the part of the sexuality spectrum he thinks she is.
Far more interesting is the homoerotic nature of Paul’s connection with the seemingly-homophobic Lee, who drops the F-slur at every provocation and yet seems awfully attentive, handsy and fond of mixing it up with the boys — wrestling and what not.
The third act has a soap opera month’s supply of melodrama. But “Port Authority” overcomes this and its more eye-rolling “suspend disbeliefs” with engaging performances, lived-in characters and violent, run-down settings straight out of New York’s “verge of collapse” era.
It’s been a minute or decade or three since we’ve seen urban homelessness put on display with this level of detail in this blend of pathos and judgement.
MPA Rating: R for pervasive language, some offensive slurs, sexual content, nudity and violence
Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Leyna Bloom, McCaul Lombardi
Credits: Scripted and directed by Danielle Lessovitz. A Momentum/Mubi release.
Running time: 1:42