[Note: I will be using he/him pronouns in this review as that is how the character is referred to in the film. The performer and screenwriter of the film — River Gallo uses they/them pronouns. Both artist and character are intersex.]
In director Esteban Arango’s sensational new film, the titular Ponyboi (played by River Gallo, who also penned the screenplay) spends his life pulled in two directions. Trapped in a situation that seems impossible to escape, Ponyboi must balance serving clients both over the counter, as manager of a laundromat, and behind closed doors, as a drug dealer. He’s torn between loyalty to his pregnant best friend Angel (Victoria Pedretti), and his pimp/lover (Dylan O’Brien) who happens to be the father of Angel’s child. There’s also a theme of loyalty to family, as Ponyboi finds himself drawn back by his mother, who floods his inbox with messages of his father’s deathbed request for forgiveness.
Finally, there’s Ponyboi’s own identity. Born intersex, he finds himself in conflict with people’s expectations of who he should be and what he should be doing with his hormone regime. Even as a trans critic, I can’t begin to understand the lived experience so passionately rendered by River Gallo. Like many intersex people, decisions have been made about Ponyboi’s gender identity by people who have no business making those decisions – doctors and parents with no concept of the complexities of an intersex identity. Furthermore he is expected to live up to the preconceptions of that identity that was chosen for him. All the while, his body is in constant conflict with itself. According to the Human Rights Watch, “Intersex people in the United States are subjected to medical practices that can inflict irreversible physical and psychological harm on them starting in infancy, harms that can last throughout their lives. Many of these procedures are done with the stated aim of making it easier for children to grow up ‘normal’ and integrate more easily into society by helping them conform to a particular sex assignment.” In 2013 the United Nations classified such practice as TORTURE.
That’s why a movie like Ponyboi is so important. An expansion of Gallo’s original 2019 short of the same name, the feature film affords the space to explore the complexities of a character who can be defined by neither their gender expression nor their survival. I’m giving Ponyboi a pass on my usual complaint of how many LGBTQ stories rely on sex worker plots, not only because the lead actor was responsible for the screenplay, but also because the film is not really about sex work. Ponyboi is more of a classic heist gone wrong, a la Guy Ritchie or Tarantino — the world is just a backdrop to see good people in impossible circumstances. The grime of the setting fuels Ponyboi’s drive toward escape. A mysterious cowboy (Murray Bartlett) enters the laundromat like a guardian angel to watch over a lost soul. Ponyboi doesn’t immediately accept his truck-ride-to-Vegas offer, but it certainly becomes a ray of hope that keeps him going.
As if to prove how difficult life is for someone born intersex, even as Ponyboi is ready to escape into the distance, he has one last obstacle. He has to get hormones so that he can feel right in the head. OK, this is something I understand! You haven’t lived on the edge of emotional collapse until you’re crying in the Walgreens pharmacy drive-through because your prescription has been delayed a week and they don’t even know when they’re getting more in and all you want is just to be able to think straight. I recently accused my pharmacist of being part of a Greg Abbott-powered conspiracy to drive everyone transgender out of Texas via sheer inconvenience.
Ponyboi is not an easy film. When you live in conflict with your own body every day, there is nothing quite like someone seeing you as you, and validating you as sexually desirable. Ponyboi longs for romance, whether it comes in the form of flowers or a dirty fuck, and Vinny shows up with both. Shout out to how gritty and in-your-face the sex scenes are. Good luck trying to cut that down for a more general release. Again, sex is just part of the backdrop of this story, like drugs or laundry.
This is a film that continues to defy expectations. It slowly fills the room with explosive elements and then hands the plot a lighter. The story picks up steam as more and more complications arise, and with so much put into play, the audience can almost be forgiven for demanding all the elements come together for a smooth landing. But that’s not how life works. Ponyboi might escape the town, but he’ll never be able to escape the past.
Infused with the conflict is the cinematic joy of a classic ‘lack-of-manners’ comedy. The laughter in Arango and Gallo’s film comes not from forced dialogue and pop-culture references, but from real people forced into unreal situations. By the conclusion of the film, when Ponyboi’s entire escape may only be a distance of twenty miles, he’s really gone much further than Vegas. Gallo’s achievement at this year’s Sundance cannot be understated. It is the first film to feature an openly intersex actor playing an intersex character. This is an important film from a singular voice and I’m so glad that it will be seen by a wide audience.
– Bears Rebecca Fonté (@BearsFonte)