Selling realness. That’s the essence of Harlem’s tight-knit drag ball scene, where dazzling kiki competitions — made popular in 1991’s landmark LGBT documentary “Paris Is Burning,” and still raging strong all these years later via “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and Ryan Murphy’s “Pose” on TV — celebrate the art of passing as something other than whatever labels society has given you: man as woman, gay as straight, street kid as supermodel. Writer-director Danielle Lessowitz’s likable debut feature, “Port Authority,” arrives decades late to the party, spinning a simple but effective romance in which that same goal 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 like the letter Y (and played by trans actress Leyna Bloom, a beauty blessed with a Lena Horne-like magnetism), is just being herself, cheering on the queer kids as they practice voguing on the Port Authority steps. But as far as straight-identifying Paul (“Dunkirk” discovery Fionn Whitehead) is concerned, this captivating stranger is so natural in the female identity she’s assumed for herself that the truth never occurs to him, an oblivious white boy fresh off the bus from Pittsburgh. Plus, when he finally works up the nerve to speak to her, Paul’s so preoccupied with reinventing his identity that he’s doing a version of the same thing — selling “realness” in his own way.
While it may feel too obvious for some, Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” serves as a clever model for a movie set in the world of ballroom “houses” — more than just competitive teams, these rival gay gangs become almost like surrogate families for queer kids of color rejected by their biological kin. Wye belongs to “the House of McQueens,” but the forces that could turn this particular 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 hard to tell whether Whitehead’s character is meant to be closeted or clueless, while his small circle of aggressively homophobic friends — led by Lee (McCaul Lombardi) — only make the problem worse.
Somewhere, there will be audiences who stumble across “Port Authority,” only to be as surprised as Paul by the one thing Wye doesn’t tell him. But this is 2019, and given the enormous rise in LGBT representation across all media — boosted here by the fact Lessowitz cast a trans woman, rather than a cisgender actress who might’ve reinforced how Paul perceives her — it’s hard to believe anyone could be as naive as Paul.
That’s not to downplay how distressing this problem can be to the trans experience, as non-gender-conforming individuals wonder whether to disclose something so personal to prospects who could beat them up if they don’t like what they hear. But given the fact that Wye surrounds herself with young gay men, and that cis women typically aren’t welcome at drag balls (any more than a white boy like Paul is), the movie can be frustratingly ambiguous when it comes to reading what’s going on in Paul’s head. Maybe that explains DP Jomo Fray’s agitated handheld style, which can be nausea-inducing at times, but tries to find a visual equivalent for its protagonist’s turbulent state of mind.
Paul’s attraction to Wye may be the most compelling thing about “Port Authority,” though the young man has plenty of other things to sort out in his life: He arrives in New York with a scratch on his cheek, and a short time later, is getting beaten up in the subway. That’s how he meets Lee, who brings him to a shelter at 8th and Delancey, and enlists Paul’s help in a shady “moving” job, which really amounts to intimidating rental tenants into paying overdue fees, or else forcibly evicting them from their apartments. When he finally manages to find his sister in the big city, the script hints about Paul being on probation, and possibly also an orphan, none of which is clear enough to pin down quite how his brain works.
None of this is Whitehall’s fault — he’s great — though other creative choices confuse more than they clarify. For instance, the editing doesn’t make clear that it’s Wye whom Paul fixates on during that early scene at the Port Authority terminal, so we don’t know how to interpret the interest he shows in one of her friends, Tekay (Devon Carpenter), who’s staying at the same homeless shelter. (It would be fair to assume that Paul’s crushing on this lithe and limber young dancer, when he’s actually hoping the kid will lead him back to Wye.) By casting Lombardi as Lee, she sets up yet another homoerotic distraction. After all, this is the same actor who couldn’t keep his pants on in “American Honey,” and he’s not shy about urinating or showering in front of Paul here.
As the story advances, Lessowitz makes clear that Paul likes Wye, but senses that he should keep this crush secret from his gay-bashing friends. But why, if he doesn’t realize she’s trans? At the same time, he’s playing her, pretending to have a legitimate job and a stable home, the truth of which is bound to come out sooner or later. After all, the movie makes a big point of how unfair it is that Wye’s landlord keeps fining them for crowding more tenants than the lease allows into a single apartment, which means the chances are good that Lee and Paul are going to find themselves knocking on their door to collect the debt soon enough.
So maybe “Port Authority” isn’t the most elegant queer romance audiences will see this year, but it’s propelled by a pair of terrific performances, and Lessowitz captures the spirit and energy of the vibrant ball world in a totally fresh way. (Matthew Herbert’s resonant score gives it a musical signature to match.) Nothing compares to “Paris Is Burning” — which is the O.G. of kiki-culture movies — or Madonna’s “Vogue” video, although the queer-theory thought police have criticized how such classics brought an outsider’s eye to this subculture. Lessowitz is largely sensitive to these concerns, appreciating rather than appropriating this unique form of self-expression, resulting in a scrappy film that ultimately feels authentic to the community it depicts. How’s that for realness?