Bursting onto the Sundance scene in a blaze of grit, glamor, and raw emotion is Ponyboi, a stylish crime drama centered around a captivating lead performance from newcomer River Gallo. Directed by Esteban Arango and written by and starring Gallo in their breakthrough role, Ponyboi offers a peek into a single transformative night in the life of an intersex sex worker navigating the seedy underbelly of New Jersey.
Gallo stars as the film’s magnetic namesake protagonist, a laundromat clerk and part-time escort who goes by Ponyboi. Right from the opening shots of them strutting down neon-soaked streets, retro flip phone in hand, we get the sense this character has stories to tell that aren’t often given the spotlight. Over the wild night ahead, Ponyboi finds themself caught between their shady pimp boss, a local mob family, and the allure of a potential new flame.
Visually slick with an eclectic cast and propulsive energy, Ponyboi at first seems to be treading familiar ground. But seasoned with a healthy dose of dark humor and led by Gallo’s raw, star-making turn, the film carves out its own unique vibe. This is a crime saga refreshing in perspective, told from the point of view of an underrepresented protagonist living life on society’s margins. As Ponyboi seeks tenderness and self-definition in a world that exploits their identity, we’re reminded just how much a character’s lens can reframe even well-worn genres into something daring.
A Fateful Night on the Streets of Jersey
Ponyboi takes place over the course of one wild Valentine’s Day that sends its central character on a dangerous odyssey across New Jersey. We’re introduced to Ponyboi (River Gallo) as they start another day working at Fluff n’ Stuff, a seedy laundromat that serves as a front for an illicit drug operation. Under the thumb of sleazy wannabe gangster Vinny (Dylan O’Brien), Ponyboi works there while also selling their body to make ends meet.
Through hints of Ponyboi’s backstory, we learn they were kicked out by their parents at a young age for refusing to conform to traditional gender roles. Now living life on society’s fringes as an intersex escort, Ponyboi remains a hopeless romantic at heart, still longing for real tenderness.
This particular Valentine’s Day shift takes a deadly turn when some tainted drugs Vinny acquires kills a member of the Jersey mob. With the violent crooks out for blood, Ponyboi seizes a suitcase full of cash and goes on the lam. As both Vinny and the mobsters hunt our protagonist through the streets, Ponyboi has to balance staying alive, filling their vital hormone prescription, and connecting with their estranged father now that he’s fallen ill.
A chance encounter with a handsome stranger named Bruce offers Ponyboi a vision of the tender affection they crave. But with danger around every corner, this star-crossed meeting may be tragically short-lived. Over one chaotic night, Ponyboi races against time, violence, and their own outsider status in hopes of finding sanctuary…and maybe even a taste of belonging.
Gallo Shines as the Unforgettable Ponyboi
At the heart of Ponyboi lies newcomer River Gallo, who makes the most of their first marquee role with a magnetic, star-is-born performance. As the film’s namesake lead, Gallo captivates from the opening frames, commanding the screen with an effusive on-screen presence. Simmering with vitality one moment and vulnerably emotive the next, Gallo conveys Ponyboi as the complicated protagonist they are: hardened by life yet soft at the core.
With endlessly watchable charisma, Gallo presents Ponyboi first and foremost as a survivor, street-smart and steel-tough when circumstances demand it. But beneath the hardened exterior lies a sensitive romantic still longing for real affection, their hopefulness colliding with an exploitative world. Gallo communicates this emotional duality beautifully, pivoting nimbly between razor-edged repartee and naked longing.
In lighter moments, Gallo reveals Ponyboi’s playful spirit with dashes of humor. And when romance finally enters the picture by way of a meet-cute with Murray Bartlett’s cowboy drifter, Gallo blooms with giddy joy. Bartlett proves the perfect scene partner here, the pair’s impromptu duet sweetly showcasing the cautious chemistry between them.
But it’s in scenes of vulnerability that Gallo truly stuns. As Ponyboi opens up about the challenges of life as an intersex person, Gallo taps into profound wells of emotion with a performance that resonates at soul level. If there remains any doubt of Gallo’s talents, their raw intimacy in these moments erases them completely. With breakout turns like this, icons are born.
A Winning Supporting Squad
While River Gallo RIGHTFULLY claims the spotlight, the supporting players of Ponyboi form a rock-solid ensemble that elevates the entire production. As sleazy laundromat boss Vinny, Dylan O’Brien sheds his teen idol past, fully committing to the role of loser wannabe gangster. With greasy bravado and violent hair-trigger temper, O’Brien makes for a convincingly scary villain. His total immersion suggests exciting new directions for the actor.
As Vinny’s pregnant girlfriend Angel, Victoria Pedretti brings warmth to Ponyboi’s lone true friend, their bond weathering even Vinny’s abuse. And Murray Bartlett turns up the charm as a washed-up cowboy whose meet-cute with Ponyboi offers our protagonist a respite of romance amidst the chaos. Between Gallo and Bartlett, their tentative flirtation radiates sweet chemistry.
Indya Moore also delights in a minor but showy role as the encouraging owner of a gay bar where Ponyboi takes refuge. With effervescent flair, Moore provides a jolt of inspiration, assuring Ponyboi they need not be confined by other’s limited perspectives.
While Gallo earns the lion’s share of cheers, the top-notch supporting players all enrich Ponyboi’s seedy Jersey underworld. Their eclectic mix of talents combine to form a charismatic ensemble, elevating Arango’s neon-noir vision.
A Neon-Soaked Stylish Vision
Beyond its compelling lead turn, Ponyboi similarly stands out for its slick aesthetics and unique directorial perspective. With vibrant lighting and an eclectic visual palette, director Esteban Arango soaks the film in atmosphere, crafting a stylish neo-noir vision of the New Jersey underbelly.
Cinematographer Ed Wu deserves special praise for his dreamlike lensing and lighting schemes. Wu steeps interior shots in sensuous neons that evoke Ponyboi’s retro Americana reveries, while exterior nights glow in hazy streetlight halos. The visual distinction between Ponyboi’s harsh realities and hopeful romanticism is acute, realized through this arresting photography.
Equally strong is Arango’s adept interpretation of writer/star River Gallo’s personal vision. Given the keys to realize their own passion project, Arango clearly takes great care to preserve the perspective of his intersex lead. The film often feels uniquely grounded in Ponyboi’s point of view, right down to small authentic touches like Ponyboi’s clandestine trips to pick up hormone prescriptions.
This alignment of subject and storyteller resonates through Arango’s lens. In tracing one transformative evening, Ponyboi emerges as a stylish and refreshingly personal take on the crime drama motif with an intimacy that announces Gallo’s worldview. Backed by the visual panache of Wu’s alluring images, Arango translates his muse’s vision with reverence and style.
A Story of Self-Definition Against the Odds
Beyond its surface pleasures as a stylish crime-drama, Ponyboi likewise engages thoughtful commentary around gender identity and societal attitudes towards those considered outsiders. Centered around an intersex protagonist, the story confronts issues of gender expression and discrimination through Ponyboi’s eyes, while championing themes of self-empowerment and self-definition.
In shining a rare spotlight on an intersex lead character, Ponyboi already feels pioneering in perspective. We witness firsthand the constant reality Ponyboi faces, from hurtful misunderstandings of their identity to the societal stigma that restricts their opportunities and sense of belonging. Yet the film also captures their resilient spirit and refusal to be wholly defeated by rejection.
When romance finally enters Ponyboi’s life, their conversation with love interest Bruce allows Gallo’s script to poignantly address the open-mindedness still lacking in many. “I was born a little different,” admits Ponyboi, a line resonating with many whose identities sit outside the mainstream.
Ultimately the biggest victory comes in Ponyboi simply embracing their right to live freely and wholly as themself. In its final moments, Ponyboi drives towards self-definition despite the labels others might impose, seeking their own fulfillment by their own compass. For Gallo, Ponyboi is clearly also a self-realized clarion call, announcing themself as a compelling voice that demands to be heard.
Ponyboi Rides Towards Acclaim
Blending style, substance, and one dynamite lead performance, Ponyboi stands poised to gallop away with audiences’ hearts when it eventually releases. As River Gallo’s star-making showcase, expect the captivating actor’s name to echo far beyond Park City, their talent burning too brightly now to be ignored by Hollywood at large.
Helmed with panache by director Esteban Arango, Ponyboi at once pays homage to the gritty crime sagas of decades past while still announcing itself as defiantly original. Told through the eyes of an intersex protagonist living on society’s fraying edges, the neo-noir thriller reveals itself as a uniquely personal passion project for its own multi-hyphenate wunderkind.
Come awards season, don’t be surprised if Gallo and Ponyboi are trotting down red carpets everywhere, their debut too stellar to overlook. More than introducing a budding A-lister, Ponyboi also heralds an exciting new directorial voice in Arango worthy of future opportunities. But above all, the film gifts audiences the fresh story of a character too rarely humanized so powerfully. Raw yet tender-hearted, Ponyboi rides high as a triumphant first statement.
Propelled by River Gallo’s star-making turn and bursting with vital style, Ponyboi makes an impressive splash as a thrillingly fresh take on the crime drama. Director Esteban Arango stylishly adapts writer/lead Gallo’s personal vision, steeping this propulsive neo-noir in atmosphere while confronting issues of identity and discrimination through a perspective-flipping lens. Bolstered by standout supporting turns and captured with visually arresting panache, Ponyboi is a breakout Sundance highlight heralding an exciting new talent in Gallo.
- River Gallo gives a magnetic, star-making lead performance
- Unique perspective with an intersex protagonist
- Slick visual style and neon-noir aesthetic
- Strong supporting turns especially from Dylan O'Brien
- Empowering themes of self-identity and definition
- Plot can occasionally feel formulaic
- Some scenes border on "Intersex 101" simplicity