Sundance 2024 Review: “Ponyboi” Makes for a Great Ride

Ponyboi

Ponyboi shines as an unconventional fairytale that exists with a fair commonality. Casual onlookers might have a hard time fathoming this, but the story of a young intersex prostitute is so beautifully unique and yet intimately relatable. Thirty minutes in it does become an unhinged yet enjoyable crime caper, but the underlying themes of unknown identity hold the viewer to the screen.

Originally envisioned as a short film by River Gallo who plays the titular role, Ponyboi further blurs the lines set within gender conformity. It also decenters the conversation from whiteness and portrays the ways people of color are largely the victims of stigmas that come with living in any sexuality or gender identity that’s not cishet. And it does it inside of a gangster film.

Ponyboi
Dylan O'Brien and River Gallo in “Ponyboi” | Image Source: Sundance

Ponyboi rides through life with pregnant best friend Angel (the ever-lovely Victoria Pedretti) at his side and Angel’s boyfriend Vincenzo (internet boyfriend Dylan O’Brien) in his bed. Their complicated relationship adds to Ponyboi’s equally complicated life. It’s just after 9/11, and bus drivers are striking across the city. This leaves Ponyboi at the mercy of strangers during a time when there aren’t many people he can trust.

It’s interesting to think of Ponyboi as a period piece, yet it’s a loving capsule to a time when the low rise of your bootcut jeans was just as important as your hot pink flip phone bedazzled with sparkling pink hearts. Ponyboi has much more diverse problems than fashion and has been his entire life. The film opens with Ponyboi getting a number of calls from “Mom,” intermixed with flashbacks of a tumultuous childhood.

Ponyboi was born intersex and subjected to a surgery as a young child to inform his gender identity. Instead of solidifying his sex, the surgery caused scars that went way deeper than the physical. Gallo does an amazing job of showing the masking, the sense of confidence and the overwhelming insecurity that can guide every day in the life of an intersex person.

Due to some “tainted Tina,” aka “bad drugs,” Ponyboi runs into a series of wrong turns that always seem to drop him back at his destination. He longs for freedom. At first, he doesn't seem overly ambitious. He’s a proud “Jersey Girl” spouting out facts about the first diner being invented there in 1912, but he’s also acutely aware of the places he hasn’t been. The plans he hasn’t flown on and all of the locales that he could finally call home.

As he tries to find solace from an angry Vinny, a questioning Angel, and a very unlucky man named Lucky (Stephen Moscatello), Ponyboi runs into a cowboy named Bruce (the delectable Murray Bartlett). Bruce resides in a dream that seems too good to be true but somehow is…maybe.

Director Esteban Arango gives a dream-like aura to all of Bruce and Ponyboi’s scenes, as well as moments where Ponyboi basks in Bruce’s glow. Bruce represents the new beginning, the change that Ponyboi longs for, but only if he can surrender the life he’s known for years.

And yet, he hesitates. Ponyboi has a misplaced sense of loyalty to his decisions. The history of the affair with Vinny remains unknown, as well as why it’s continued, but these scenes do show Ponyboi can compartmentalize. He's not acting, there’s nothing inauthentic about the way Ponyboi’s heart betrays him for Vinny, but Ponyboi knows a life of living in boxes and shuffling when the situation calls for it.

Murray Barlett and River Gallo in “Ponyboi” | Image Source: Sundance

As a prostitute by trade, he practices this act of re-gifting on his different clients. And just because the gift was used doesn’t mean it’s any less sincere. Ponyboi doesn't wear fake facades; they’re all different parts of himself, albeit separate and sectioned off. When Bruce shows up, claiming to want every part, every side of Ponyboi, and claims to love him just the way he appears, that’s when Ponyboi realizes he may not actually know who he is. And that’s the beauty that underlies the entire film.

There’s a wonderful confrontation between Ponyboi and Charlie (the enigmatic Indya Moore) that both validates and questions the line between transgenderism and intersexism. Some details were sorely missed, but there is a bit of love lost between the two due to Ponyboi’s refusal to conform for the greater good. Charlie says it’s “girls like [Ponyboi] that get the real girls killed,” and in this sense, she means the trans women who are murdered at disturbingly high rates. It’s an anger that’s misplaced and the movie would have benefited from exploring it more.

Ponyboi takes testosterone (“T”) and not estrogen, which serves as a point of contention between himself and Charlie. The film has no shortage of discussion from mostly cishet men about ways Ponyboi could appear more feminine or quicken his “transition,” but Ponyboi – who was born without testes, just like River Gallo – isn’t trying to be a girl. In fact, he’s trying to be a real boy, or who knows? He never really knew he had a choice.

Some scenes feature reimagined flashes of the procedure Gallo had to go through as a kid. The doctor reassures Ponyboi and his parents that he will grow into a strong man. When Ponyboi’s fascination with femininity begins to bear tangible results, he and his father argue, forcing Ponyboi to fend for himself in the cold streets of New Jersey. Sadly, it’s not an uncommon story and one that Ponyboi comes face to face with during the film.

Gallo also wrote the screenplay for Ponyboi, and the name itself has a very rockabilly vibe. The neon motif just adds to the “‘50s by way of the ‘80s” theme, and the actors deliver their lines in a Danny Zuko dialect to a really nice effect. It’s The Sopranos meets the Pink Ladies, and there’s something about the way everyone shows up that’s elevated but on just the right side of camp.

Pedretti could easily be written off as a two-dimensional character, but she’s got those Pedretti eyes that are filled with longing and lends them to Angel, who is just trying to bring good into the world. She’s not naive, but she’s also not cynical, and she plays her part well. Pedretti ensures the viewer takes Angel’s side and never leaves it, despite any growing feelings for Ponyboi and Angel’s inability to see past Vinny’s manipulations.

Gallo adds an impressive characteristic to Vinny: his surprisingly extensive knowledge of gender-affirming care. It sounds contradictory, but Vinny represents the type of men who have deep knowledge their own nonsensical natures. He’s called “closeted,” but I don’t think he’s closeted; rather, he’s someone who can spot a vulnerable person a mile away and knows how to get what he wants. It’s power, it’s a challenge, it’s ensuring a specific type of gratification and this type of nefarious white knighting is something not enough people talk about or portray in films like these.

And it’s no wonder, because to pull it off, a film needs an actor who has an innate sense of his character’s flaws without being judgemental. Vinny is prideful, devious and duplicitous, but he’s also talented and passionate. He’s genuinely excited about becoming a father to a daughter, and that alone shows he has some capacity for human emotion.

O’Brien infuses his performance with unabashed enthusiasm. His charmed lot in life involves going to get lobster and “filet mig-nun” with the mother of his child; it’s selling beats and creating music. It’s finding a niche market in sex work and exclusively catering to it. Vinny’s future is only hampered by his inability to consider that anything could ever really go wrong for him. It’s a tough part to play–one whose authenticity is crucial to sell Ponyboi’s decisions throughout the film, and O’Brien executes with undeniable talent.

Murray Bartlett’s Bruce is the dream we all have and try desperately to remember when we wake up. He serves as a guardian angel of sorts to Ponyboi and again, Bartlett could easily phone in his charm, but Bruce represents not just fantasy, but the hope and inner beauty that lies just outside of Ponyboi’s reach.

River Gallo in Ponyboi
River Gallo in “Ponyboi” | Image Source: Sundance

Ponyboi is in the fight of his life, but it’s a fight against his past, present, and future. I suspect in their personal life, Gallo has considered all of these contradictions when they portray Ponyboi with a naivete that’s grounded by experience. Ponyboi understands family can be found but still wants to reconnect to his own. He understands he’s beautiful but still needs to flaunt it to make sure. Ponyboi is a revelation of a character who appears to have it all together, and once this mask cracks, he quickly shows that he doesn’t, not even a little bit.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t give accolades to director Esteban Arango and cinematographer Ed Wu. They’ve worked on other projects together and through the direction and camera work, create a beautiful arthouse film that feels timeless. It’s slick and defined, but also framed with blurred edges and golden lighting. Ponyboi is a feast for the eyes, and I always note when characters of color are well-lit. Ponyboi understands that particular assignment.

Overall, at 143 minutes, one might expect Ponyboi to drag, but there were no cuts for me, and in fact, I wanted more in some places. Each experience informs the way Ponyboi guides through the scenes, and everything feels important and necessary. I believe this film will be easily sold and wholly recommend it when it becomes available.

9.5/10 SPECS

Ponyboi debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and is currently looking for distribution.