Throughout the history of film, television and literature, stories of small-town outcasts seeking a new life in New York City have become commonplace. In one of the latest iterations of that popular storytelling trope, Port Authority gives a peek into the lives of a particularly underrepresented community. Directed by Danielle Lessovitz, this delicate drama tells a quintessential New York love story that features a compelling transgender perspective.
We enter this big city tale through the eyes of Paul (Fionn Whitehead), a young white man recently exiled from his hometown of Pittsburgh. Newly landed in New York’s Port Authority station. Down on his luck with his unwelcoming NYC-resident sister, Paul is homeless with nowhere to go. After an altercation on the subway, an intervening man takes him in and offers employment evicting delinquent tenants throughout the city. As he settles in to his new life, he randomly meets a beautiful young woman named Wye (Lenya Bloom). The two become close, but upon realization of Wye’s trans identity, Paul’s troubled past and his bigoted environment threatens to derail their relationship.
Crafted with a raw authenticity, Port Authority is reminiscent of indie filmmaker Eliza Hitman’s understated coming of age dramas. One can easily draw parallels to the burgeoning sexuality of It Felt Like Love and Beach Rats, in addition to the desperate New York-centric journey captured in Never Rarely Sometimes Always. Similarly, Lessovitz portrays the film’s young protagonists with palpable empathy through naturalistic dialogue and performances.
Indeed, Port Authority never sensationalizes its central premise of a white cishet man unwittingly falling in love with a trans woman of color. For better or worse, the narrative hinges on an angst-ridden young man played with sincere vulnerability by Fionn Whitehead. However, the film does suffer from its skewed perspective, as Paul’s withdrawn nature struggles to reveal the character’s inner life and backstory. Meanwhile, the more open-hearted and expressive Wye feels more like an agent for his self-actualization and healing, rather than a love interest worthy of her own rich story to tell. Notably, we rarely see Leyna Bloom outside of her scenes with Whitehead, despite her obvious acting talent.
Ultimately, the film’s undercooked love story largely succeeds on its strong sense of place. With its familiar milieu – one heated conversation is even interrupted by the noise of passing subway trains – this is undeniably a New York story. In that regard, the Port Authority terminal is poignantly symbolic as a modern day Ellis Island for America’s internal migration to the City of Dreams. And through its somewhat conventional depiction of its central romance, Port Authority suggests a universality in the human struggle for its culturally and ethnically contrasting pariahs. It may not be entirely convincing, but this heartfelt love story is worth your consideration.
Port Authority is available in select theaters May 28th and On Demand and Digital June 1, 2021.