We don’t get many stories that focus on queer protagonists, especially within pulpier genres like action and crime. Rarer still are stories that center on a prevalent but less-visible gender identity: intersex. It’s the “I” in the LGBTQIA+ initialism, but a lack of visibility elsewhere makes it one of the most stigmatized groups within the queer community. Very rarely are intersex characters depicted with any sense of nuance or grace. That’s what makes River Gallo, the intersex star of Sundance’s Ponyboi, such an essential new voice.
Directed by Esteban Arango from Gallo’s own screenplay, Ponyboi glimmers with the haze of nostalgia. It’s a crime caper spliced with a queer coming-of-age story, tinged with the kitschy punch of the early-aughts. Arango, Gallo, and cinematographer Ed Wu have the aesthetics of the era down pat — but attempts to introduce a gritty mafia subplot to this New Jersey odyssey often derails the heartfelt story within.
Story-wise, Ponyboi could do with a bit more polish: it’s occasionally hindered by some predictable narrative flourishes. But underneath a conventional crime drama is a scrappy, heartfelt, and personal odyssey. The film keeps its scope limited to Valentine’s Day circa 2002, one of the busiest days of the year for sex workers like Ponyboi (Gallo). Our hero is pulling triple duty: seeing johns on the New Jersey turnpike, facilitating drug deals for pimp-slash-dealer Vinny (a delightfully skeezy Dylan O’Brien), and manning the laundromat that serves as a front for Vinny’s many enterprises. Every set in Ponyboi is covered in a grime that gets into your skin — and very clearly contributes to Ponyboi’s waning morale. His one refuge is the back room of the laundromat, awash in warm neon lights where he’s free to daydream between tasks.
There’s also Angel (Victoria Pedretti), Ponyboi’s childhood BFF and Vinny’s very-pregnant girlfriend. Just as her name suggests, Angel is way too sweet for her own good: she’s head-over-heels for Vinny, and oblivious to the fact that her man seems to be sleeping with everyone in his employ... Ponyboi included. Things get worse for the trio when Ponyboi’s latest client dies on his watch (after smoking Vinny’s sketchy inventory, no less) and inadvertently ignites a war with a local mob family.
Ponyboi’s first instinct is to run. He’s gotten really good at running, a truth we learn from hazy flashbacks to his childhood: summer afternoons in the back of his parents’ pick-up truck and long hours spent in hospitals. A flurry of surgeons assure him that he’ll soon be “a real cowboy.” Ponyboi’s father was once adamant about medical intervention, but it’s a fate that Ponyboi himself managed to avoid. He ran away some time before his first surgery and hasn’t looked back since — not even to check in on his father, now terminally ill.
That instinct served him well back then, but it might make things worse in this specific case. Partially inspired by a handsome drifter (Murray Bartlett) he encounters at the laundromat, Ponyboi decides to skip town with Vinny’s stash of cash. It’s definitely not the smartest choice — it’s mob money, of course — but it inadvertently sets of a chain of events that will force Ponyboi to fully reckon with his past and come to terms with the full scope of his identity.
Despite its sense of adventure, Ponyboi can skew towards predictability. The introduction of that aforementioned mob family, incensed at the death of one of their own, brings a half-baked thriller element to an otherwise lowkey and heartfelt coming of age. It’s entirely detached from Ponyboi’s journey of self-discovery, and that might actually be for the best. While our hero heals his inner child with the help of Barlett’s sexy guardian angel figure, O’Brien and Pedretti dive head-first into a Jerseyan rendition of Bonnie & Clyde. It’s trashy in the best ways, and injects Ponyboi with kinetic tension and some very specific humor.
When their paths intersect with Gallo’s, it’s frequently magic. Ponyboi’s bond with Angel is both achingly pure and fraught with unspoken secrets, while our hero brings out the true venom in the once-goofy Vinny. Their dynamic is one of Ponyboi’s most fascinating, and it sets the tone for Ponyboi’s one-night odyssey through Jersey’s underbelly.
Ponyboi oscillates from one expectation to the next, struggling to find his place in a limiting gender binary. He’s demonized by some, fetishized by others, but very rarely seen for the full scope of who he is. Perhaps that’s why he’s been running since childhood. Whether he can find a reason to stop is one of Ponyboi’s most interesting mysteries. When buoyed by assured, colorful performances and a tangible sense of place, Ponyboi feels like a flawless debut. It’s not a perfect genre piece — but in a world that largely ignores protagonists like Ponyboi, it’s easy to overlook its reliance on formula.