Depending on how you look at it, “Ponyboi” is either a Trojan horse for exploring nonbinary gender identity or a hackneyed crime movie with a radically unorthodox queer protagonist. Either way, it’s a sordid yet stylish showcase for intersex actor (and activist) River Gallo, who uses “they/them” pronouns and sees the project as an opportunity to educate audiences about the social and psychological aspects of exhibiting both male and female traits in a world that classifies people in one box or the other.
It’s ironic therefore that, apart from Gallo’s category-defying title character, the rest of the ensemble is populated by such familiar stereotypes. Sparkling like a rhinestone in the rough, Ponyboi stands out amid a lineup of cartoon gangsters, tough-guy dealers and gum-smacking prostitutes — lowlifes recycled from a hundred late-night cable movies with superficially similar plots.
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Still, cinema history is short on anyone remotely like Gallo, whose million-watt charisma and one-of-a-kind experience feel wasted in this role. It’s a shame, since the actor has kind of a Lady Gaga thing going — a complex and seemingly paradoxical hard-soft quality, at once vulnerable and strong, with striking features and a radiant smile. Add to that the sultry queer-noir aesthetic DP Ed Wu brings to his gorgeous widescreen cinematography, balancing sultry shadows with a luminous pink glow, and you sense the potential of what could have been.
Expanding upon their 2019 short of the same name, Gallo focuses on the criminal elements making life difficult for Ponyboi, a biologically ambiguous (male-identifying, female-presenting) New Jersey sex worker with dreams of being rescued by an ultra-masculine cowboy. The feature version, which was directed by Esteban Arango (“Blast Beat”), introduces the title character via flashback, woozily reliving memories of his father, a macho Latino who tells his clearly traumatized “son” that the doctors can “make you big, strong man like Papa.” Ponyboi’s father is a traumatic figure in the film, having tried to impose his ideas of gender on a child whose uniqueness needed to be recognized and appreciated, not normalized.
If you happened to see 2023 documentary “Every Body” (in which Gallo was featured), you know their position on parents who impose surgery without consent. In short, they argue that there’s nothing about intersex people to “fix,” and that such procedures amount to nonconsensual genital mutilation when performed on infants or children. “Ponyboi” makes a similar statement, though it waits until 50 minutes in to reveal Ponyboi’s secret. Until then, the movie embraces the ambiguity, inviting audiences to conclude that the character must be a trans woman. Anyone buying a ticket knows the deal, but imagine stumbling across the film by chance on television. Those audiences are in for a surprise.
From the get-go, the movie presents Gallo as a victim of a system that both excludes and exploits gender nonconforming individuals. It’s a fair critique, though the film’s language and imagery take it too far. Early on, “Ponyboi” shows Gallo servicing a fat truck driver along the New Jersey Turnpike. Later, back at the Fluff N Fold laundromat, he 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). Predictably enough, the Italian fatso ODs, leaving Ponyboi with a briefcase full of cash and a very angry pimp.
Now, you could argue that because sex work is a genuine problem for trans and nonbinary people, that justifies Gallo’s decision to put Ponyboi through those indignities. Politically, that makes sense, but the script’s many clichés get in the way of what felt original about Gallo’s short film — namely, the relationship between Ponyboi and a bearded cowboy, who represents both a romantic ideal and role model for the character.
An equivalent character exists 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 disappears entirely. That’s a loose end Gallo didn’t know how to resolve, since the two-hour version needs Ponyboi to go home so he can address the bad blood with his father.
Beat for beat, Arango’s film unfolds almost exactly as you might predict, with two interesting detours: First, Ponyboi stops in at a pharmacy to stock up on hormones, where the movie can show how intersex people are mistreated (even by supposed medical professionals). And second, he makes his way to 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 communicate something essential, but they hardly justify how stale the rest of the film feels. Screenwriting may not be Gallo’s calling, but with luck, the right person will catch “Ponyboi” and cast them in another, better movie.
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