Ponyboi (2024)

Ponyboi Review


Adding a gender nonconforming lead character puts a fresh spin on this Sundance-born calling-card movie about a sex worker who wants to break free from her sleazy pimp and a pair of Italian gangsters.

Depending on your perspective, “Ponyboi” is either a Trojan horse for discussing nonbinary gender identity or an uninspired crime flick with an outrageously unconventional queer protagonist. In any case, it’s a luridly stylish showcase for intersex actor (and activist) River Gallo, who uses “they/them” pronouns and sees the project as an opportunity to teach audiences about the social and psychological aspects of having both male and female traits in a world that bins people one way or another.

So it’s ironic that, apart from Gallo’s category-defying title character, everyone else in the ensemble is such a familiar stereotype. Ponyboi shines like sequins in the rough among cartoon gangsters, tough-guy dealers and gum-smacking hookers–lowlifes recycled from a hundred late-night cable movies with vaguely similar plots.

Cinema has never seen anything remotely like Gallo, whose million-watt charisma and singular life experience feel wasted here. Which is too bad. The actor has got something of a Lady Gaga thing going on a hard-softness that seems at once vulnerable and strong, with sharp features and an incandescent smile. Add to that DP Ed Wu’s sultry-queer-noir aesthetic in his gorgeous widescreen cinematography (balancing sultry shadows with luminous pink glow), and you start to sense what might have been possible.

Expanding on their 2019 short film of the same name, Gallo builds out the criminal elements making Ponyboi’s life difficult; “Every Body” director Esteban Arango takes over for this feature-length take (Arango’s first narrative since 2021’s “Blast Beat”), which introduces the title character in a woozy flashback, as he remembers his father, a macho Latino who tells his clearly traumatized “son” that the doctors can “make you big, strong man like Papa.” Fathers don’t get much more traumatic than Ponyboi’s dad, who tried to impose his gender ideas on a child whose otherness should have been recognized and celebrated, not normalized.

If you caught their 2023 documentary “Every Body,” then you know Gallo’s thoughts on parents who subject children to surgery without consent. Short version: There’s nothing about intersex people that needs “fixing,” so those procedures amount to nonconsensual genital mutilation when performed on infants or minors. “Ponyboi” makes a similar argument but holds back Ponyboi’s secret until 50 minutes in; until then, it revels in ambiguity (inviting audiences to assume the character must be a trans woman). Anyone seeing this film knows what they’re getting into, but imagine stumbling upon it by accident on TV. That audience is in for a surprise.

Right off the bat, this movie clearly illustrates Gallo as someone who has been victimized by a system that excludes and exploits people who do not conform to traditional gender roles. This is a valid criticism, although some of the film’s language and imagery goes too far. In one of the earliest scenes in “Ponyboi,” Gallo services a fat truck driver on the New Jersey Turnpike. Later, back at the Fluff N Fold laundromat, she straddles the grotesque “Sopranos”-style goombah (Stephen Moscatello) who comes in to collect a batch of bad meth from her sleazebag boyfriend, Vinny (Dylan O’Brien). The Italian fatso ODs but not before imparting Ponyboi with a briefcase full of cash and an extremely irate pimp.

Now, you could say that it’s fine for Gallo to have put Ponyboi through these indignities because sex work is such a real issue for trans and nonbinary people. That would make sense politically except that there are too many clichés in the script to allow what was original about Gallo’s short film (namely: Ponyboi falls for a bearded cowboy who represents both romantic ideal and role model) to breathe.

There’s an equivalent character here: Bruce (Murray Bartlett) looks like he could have stepped straight off a Marlboro billboard, and says the magic words Ponyboi needs to hear “I like that you’re different.” Bruce offers our endangered hero a ride when he needs it most, then vanishes into thin air. It’s a loose end Gallo didn’t know how to resolve, given that this two-hour version requires Ponyboi to head home so he can patch things up with dear old dad.

The twist-by-twist structure of Arango’s film unfolds mostly as expected, with two notable deviations: First, Ponyboi drops by a pharmacy to stock up on hormones, where the movie can demonstrate how intersex people are mistreated (even by supposed medical professionals). And second, he ends up at a trans bar, where an old friend (Indya Moore) delivers the movie’s message: “Hormones didn’t tell me who I was. That part was my job.” These scenes say something important, but they don’t excuse how tired the rest of the film feels. Screenwriting may not be Gallo’s calling, but hopefully somebody sees “Ponyboi” and casts.

Watch Ponyboi For Free On Gomovies.

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