Promoting realness. That’s the essence of Harlem’s tight-knit drag ball scene, the place dazzling kiki competitions — made widespread in 1991’s landmark LGBT documentary “Paris Is Burning,” and nonetheless raging sturdy all these years later by way of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and Ryan Murphy’s “Pose” on TV — have fun the artwork of passing as one thing apart from no matter labels society has given you: man as girl, homosexual as straight, avenue child as supermodel. Author-director Danielle Lessowitz’s likable debut characteristic, “Port Authority,” arrives many years late to the occasion, spinning a easy however efficient romance wherein that very same aim of self-transformation is what separates two star-crossed lovers whose worlds collide on the steps of New York’s busiest bus terminal.
Wye, pronounced just like the letter Y (and performed by trans actress Leyna Bloom, a magnificence blessed with a Lena Horne-like magnetism), is simply being herself, cheering on the queer children as they apply voguing on the Port Authority steps. However so far as straight-identifying Paul (“Dunkirk” discovery Fionn Whitehead) is anxious, this fascinating stranger is so pure within the feminine id she’s assumed for herself that the reality by no means happens to him, an oblivious white boy recent off the bus from Pittsburgh. Plus, when he lastly works up the nerve to talk to her, Paul’s so preoccupied with reinventing his id that he’s doing a model of the identical factor — “promoting realness” in his personal method.
Whereas it could really feel too apparent for some, Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” serves as a intelligent mannequin for a film set on the planet of ballroom “homes” — extra than simply aggressive groups, these rival homosexual gangs grow to be virtually like surrogate households for queer children of colour rejected by their organic kin. However the forces that would flip this specific couple’s attraction into tragedy run deeper than some dispute between the feuding Montague and Capulet clans. Behind that angel face and cherubic curls, it’s laborious to inform whether or not Whitehead’s character is supposed to be closeted or clueless, and the aggressively homophobic pals he makes on the homeless shelter — led by Lee (McCaul Lombardi) — solely make the issue worse.
Someplace, there will likely be audiences who stumble throughout “Port Authority,” solely to be as shocked as Paul by the one factor Wye doesn’t inform him. However that is 2019, and given the large rise in LGBT illustration throughout all media — boosted right here by the very fact Lessowitz solid a trans girl, somewhat than a cisgender actress who may’ve strengthened how Paul perceives her — it’s laborious to imagine anybody might be as naive as Paul.
That’s to not downplay how distressing this drawback might be to the trans expertise, as non-gender-conforming people wonder if to reveal one thing so private to prospects who may beat them up in the event that they don’t like what they hear. However given the truth that Wye surrounds herself with younger homosexual males, and that cis girls sometimes aren’t welcome at drag balls (any greater than a white boy like Paul is), the film might be frustratingly ambiguous relating to studying what’s happening in Paul’s head. Perhaps that explains DP Jomo Fray’s agitated handheld fashion, which might be nausea-inducing at instances, however tries to discover a visible equal for its protagonist’s turbulent mind-set.
Paul’s attraction to Wye will be the most compelling factor about “Port Authority,” although the younger man has loads of different issues to type out in his life: He arrives in New York with a scratch on his cheek, and a short while later, is getting overwhelmed up within the subway. That’s how he meets Lee, who brings him to a shelter at eighth and Delancey, and enlists Paul’s assist in a shady “transferring” job, which actually quantities to intimidating rental tenants into paying overdue charges, or else forcibly evicting them from their flats. When he lastly manages to search out his sister within the huge metropolis, the script hints about Paul being on probation, and probably additionally an orphan, none of which is obvious sufficient to pin down fairly how his mind works.
None of that is Whitehall’s fault — he’s nice — although different inventive selections confuse greater than they make clear. As an example, the modifying doesn’t clarify that it’s Wye whom Paul fixates on throughout that early scene on the Port Authority terminal, so we don’t know tips on how to interpret the curiosity he reveals in certainly one of her pals, Tekay (Devon Carpenter), who’s staying on the similar homeless shelter. (It could be honest to imagine that Paul’s crushing on this lithe and limber younger dancer, when he’s really hoping the child will lead him again to Wye.) By casting Lombardi as Lee, she units up yet one more homoerotic distraction. In any case, this is identical actor who couldn’t hold his pants on in “American Honey,” and he’s not shy about urinating or showering in entrance of Paul right here.
Because the story advances, Lessowitz makes clear that Paul likes Wye, however senses that he ought to hold this crush secret from his gay-bashing pals. However why, if he doesn’t notice she’s trans? On the similar time, he’s taking part in her, pretending to have a professional job and a secure residence, the reality of which is sure to come back out eventually. In any case, the film makes a giant level of how unfair it’s that Wye’s landlord retains fining the “Home of McQueens” for crowding extra tenants than the lease permits right into a single condo, which implies the possibilities are good that Lee and Paul are going to search out themselves knocking on their door to gather the debt quickly sufficient.
So possibly “Port Authority” isn’t essentially the most elegant queer romance audiences will see this 12 months, nevertheless it’s propelled by a pair of terrific performances, and Lessowitz captures the spirit and vitality of the colourful ball world in a very recent method. (Matthew Herbert’s resonant rating provides it a musical signature to match.) Nothing compares to “Paris Is Burning” — which is the O.G. of kiki-culture motion pictures — or Madonna’s “Vogue” video, though the queer-theory thought police have criticized how such classics introduced an outsider’s eye to this subculture. Lessowitz is basically delicate to those considerations, appreciating somewhat than appropriating this distinctive type of self-expression, leading to a scrappy movie that finally feels genuine to the neighborhood it depicts. How’s that for realness?
Cannes Movie Assessment: ‘Port Authority’
Reviewed at Cannes Movie Competition (Un Sure Regard), Could 14, 2019. Working time: 101 MIN.
A Sikelia Prods., Hercules presentation, in affiliation with RT Options, of a Madeleine Movies manufacturing. (Int’l gross sales: MK2, Paris.) Producers: Rodrigo Teixeira, Virginie Lacombe, Zachary Luke Kislevitz, Paris Kassidokostas-Latsis, Terry Dougas. Govt producers: Sophie Mas, Lourenço Sant’ Anna, Jean-Luc De Fanti, Efe Cakarel, Bobby Allen, Martin Scorsese, Emma Tillinger Koskoff, Lawrence “Snookie” Taylor, Rodrigo Gutierrez, Frédéric de Goldschmidt
Director, author: Danielle Lessowitz. Digicam (colour): Jomo Fray. Editors: Clémence Samson, Matthew C. Hart. Music: Matthew Herbert.
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.