One of the most alluring aspects of cinema is its competence to expose the viewer to distinct places, culture, and life, in general. And New York, has been the setting of numerous films. I, being a popcorn movie guy, have always afliated New York with the fascinating sky scrapers and people walking in hordes with coffee cups in hands. My exposure to New York beyond the beauty, came through Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver, which captured the city in its dark period, an equally dark Shame by Steve McQueen, and a many others like The King of Comedy, Two of a kind, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, The God Father films, from the 80s to the very recent Nerve, The Only Living Boy in New York, and Hustlers are some I’ve seen. Don’t get me started on the The Avengers, though! And some Indian films that effectively used the to tell stories and drive the characters are, English Vinglish by Gauri Shinde and Gautam Menon’s Vettaiyaadu Velaiyadu, even though the tone and treatment of the city’s backdrop and landscape is markedly different from the American films. So, how is this conversation have any relevance to Port Authority, the film in subject?
Well, the film begins at ‘Port Authority’, setting out the narrative for the protagonist Paul, the journey that he is going to take. There’s no shame in wondering what’s ‘Port Authority’ in the first place, just like me while I was watching it. After some digging, I’ve learnt that ‘Port Authority’ is a bus terminus located in New York, the largest bus terminus in the US, with over 2,25,00 people using it on an average with around 8,000 bus services each day. A gigantic crowd, you can imagine. People from different walks of life, coming together a point where they might never even look at the same faces ever again in their lives. Contrary to taking a bus from there and going on a journey, Paul’s journey begins as he arrives at the terminus from Pittsburgh to find his half-sister, whom he has never met in his life and with a hope that she would take him in. The very first scene is him lumbering in the terminus incapably with a picture of his sister, asking others if they’ve seen her. The population of New York is 20 million, poor Paul.
In a turn of events, he lands a job with a roof over his head, thanks to Lee, who saves from being knocked down, literally and figuratively. But is it what Paul wants? No. We never see Paul happy or even smiling, for that case, until he meets Wye.
Wye is a women of colour. Beautiful and bold. And Paul is a white American. The two bond over their differences. There is a running track of music and dance going on parallelly in the film. I guess it’s a part of the music scene of NY, which I couldn’t get. To Paul’s shock and dismay, he learns that Wye is a transgender woman. And when he verbally confronts her by questioning why didn’t she tell him, her response actually made me laugh, it is unintentional, though. She says, “why didn’t you ask. You should look around”, refering to the men she stays with. While Paul is irked by the revelation of her sexual identity, he gets back with her pretty quickly. Now, this part- Paul accepting her sexual identity felt rather quick to me, maybe because I’ve never seen such relationship prior to this. Yes. Her reveal is a shock to Paul. I expected it to shake him. I thought maybe he should sleep over it and give it some time before arriving at a conclusion. But again, Paul is not me. That’s his personal choice.
The film is an intimate portrayal of relationships and life. This is backed by close ups and hand held camera. It’s almost like we are are walking behind Paul and Wye as they walk holding their hands. Not for once do we see the iconic skyline. No ariel shots as well. The focus is only on the characters. I don’t even recall seeing a crowd from a top angle in, as opposed to other films set in New York(from the 7 – 9 I’ve seen), where a character walks among hordes of people. The people in the city are minimal. Even in the bus terminus, which gets over 2,25,000 visitors on an average everyday, we hardly a dozen humans. Maybe it’s a way of the writer saying, ‘no matter how many people are in this world, it’s only your loved ones that matter to you’
And the film feels very close to life, despite me being from a country on the opposite side of Globe with different cultural norms and background- because it’s about real people and their emotions feel real. Paul’s immaturity to expect his half-sister, whom he has never met, to help him when he appears out of nowhere, can be dismissed as a silly way to begin the character arc. But it is not the case with writing, that is how Paul is, as a person. When Wye says Paul should have asked her whether she is a trans, even though it feels like a question which no boy would ask a girl when he is about to get into a relationship with – that is how Wye is. Because she is always surrounded by people who visibly belong to LGBTQ community. It is Paul who didn’t notice it. And Wye expected him to notice. Neither of them are wrong. Because, again, that’s how they are.
Leyna Bloom as Wye is terrific, let it be the way she talks, walks, or does anything, she is Wye. Having no reference to her previous acting work, she will remain Wye for me. Fionn Whitehead, who was Tommy in Dunkirk, equally great, gets into the skin of Paul. While Tommy’s struggle was external in the form of physical threat, it is more of an internal conflict for Paul. With something running in his head, he conveys it just with his body language. McCaul Lombardi, who plays Lee, brings both the saviour and dangerous vibes with his presence. ‘There’s something with Lee’, my mind kept going everytime he was in the frame. Each and every member of Wye’s ‘family’ are extremely humanistic, let it be ‘mother’, Eddie, and even Tekay.
With Port Authority, Danielle Lessovitz crafted a film that’s hard to get out of mind even though it doesn’t hit in the gut. It’s a remainder that with great writing, one can tell a simplistice story with very very high effect.