It’s Valentine’s Day in the early aughts. Rudy Giuliani plays a hand in New York politics, and residents are still recovering from the events of September 11. There are talks of a memorial, among other commemorations. Across the river, bus drivers are on strike and a young, self-proclaimed “Jersey girl” rides a trucker in the parking lot of the New Jersey Turnpike gas station. As Ponyboi (played by newcomer River Gallo) amps his client up with theatrical ad libs, the stout john offers a note: Could Ponyboi turn it down a notch and consider speaking less?
This droll opening scene, which begins with the sweaty tension of sex before landing on smirking humor, is emblematic of Esteban Arango’s feature Ponyboi. Premiering at Sundance in the U.S. Dramatic Competition and written by Gallo, its intersex lead who uses they/them pronouns, Ponyboi revises the crime drama by putting forward an unconventional protagonist with a lot of heart and a little humor. Gallo’s screenplay achieves something still rare in an industry unnecessarily confused about inclusion: Ponyboi seamlessly integrates its character’s challenges with identity into a propulsive story about a sex worker on the run. It also introduces Gallo, whose strong performance offers audiences a new hero worth rooting for. The result is a sleek film, only occasionally hampered by predictability and contrivance.
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Ponyboi chronicles the wild and sticky 24-hour adventure of its protagonist Ponyboi, an intersex worker on the run from his pimp (a transformed Dylan O’Brien) and his past. Along the way, he tries to shape a self-image aligned with who he wants to be versus who everyone thinks he is. Arango’s film is a New Jersey fever dream, the kind of kaleidoscopic vision that leaves sheets damp and hands clammy.
The film starts at full speed and rarely lets up. During sex with his Turnpike client, Ponyboi recalls memories of his younger self on a hospital bed, surrounded by the faces of his parents and a team of surgeons. One of the people in this room makes a statement more ominous than reassuring about how the doctors are going to make Ponyboi a real cowboy. This idea and its baggage — authenticity, the weight of masculinity — reverberate throughout Ponyboi. As an intersex character, Ponyboi struggles with living in a world asking him to choose within the binary. Cascading curls and glittering eyeshadow make people think he’s trying to be a woman, but he regularly takes testosterone hormones and is drawn to visions of cowboys.
With the job complete and the money collected, Ponyboi heads to his second gig at a roadside laundromat. There, he runs into his best friend Angel (Victoria Pedretti), the girlfriend of Ponyboi’s boss Vinny (O’Brien). The two share a heartfelt moment: Angel, who is four months away from giving birth to Vinny’s baby and plans to spend Valentine’s Day with the goofy gangster, buys matching friendship bracelets for Ponyboi. She assures him that although he is spending the commercial holiday alone, he will eventually find a man.
Unbeknownst to Angel, Ponyboi is having sex with Vinny. The relationship is more arrangement than romance, but there’s an understated sweetness to the pair’s interactions. When Vinny barges into the laundromat, all performance and awkward swag, Ponyboi’s eyes track him. When the two have sex in the cavernous backroom later, their post-coital moment is filled with a surprising grade-school gentleness and intimate ease. Ponyboi yearns for romance and Vinny, however imperfect, offers a version of that.
Ponyboi kicks into gear when a client (Stephen Moscatello) dies after smoking a new strain of meth created by Vinny. Ponyboi panics after coming down from his own high and noticing Lucky isn’t breathing. At first, the alarmed sex worker tries to call the police, then Vinny, and then finally, inspired by an earlier interaction with a charming cowboy (Murray Bartlett) heading to Vegas, decides to seize the moment. Ponyboi respectfully throws a white sheet over Lucky’s rigid body, steals the cash, grabs a gun and hits the road.
Our nomadic protagonist doesn’t get very far in terms of distance, but his Jersey adventure yields self-revelations and transcendent encounters. Ponyboi is packed with multiple threads, and maintains full control until a bumpy third act. With so much going on — the mysterious cowboy comes back, and there’s a detour to a heartfelt moment with Pose’s Indya Moore — the film starts to rely on cliché and contrivance to wrap up loose ends. This leaves some plotlines — like one between Ponyboi and his parents — underbaked while others struggle to achieve their intended emotional poignancy.
Still, Gallo is strong as the film’s lead, proving adept in a role that requires moving between fatal thrill and light comedy. The actor, whom viewers might know from the intersex documentary Every Body, teases out their character’s inner tension, bringing a heartbreaking texture to scenes like the one in which Ponyboi tries to get more testosterone at a pharmacy before hitting the road. Arango’s sleek direction and the film’s psychedelic palette make for a visually pleasing viewing experience. Tommy Love’s production design and Lucy Hawkins’ costuming bring the gritty underworld of New Jersey to life, and add to the film’s sense of neo-noir dread. Despite the hiccups, Ponyboi’s assurance in its vision and faith in its radical narrative makes it a ride worth getting on.
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