Sundance Film Review: Ponyboi
Sundance Film Review: Ponyboi
Director: Esteban Arango
30KFT and Tideline Entertainment
Every so often, an ambitious actor propels themselves into superstardom by writing their own perfect star vehicle. Sylvester Stallone did it with Rocky, Matt Damon did it with Good Will Hunting, and if there is any justice in the world, River Gallo has done it with Ponyboi.
Ponyboi (Gallo, Pool Boy), is an intersex person in the early 2000s who works at a laundromat that serves as a front for illegal sex work and drug deals. Ponyboi answers to either male or female pronouns—depending on the situation and who is doing the talking—and their only real friend is Angel (Victoria Pedretti, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood), the very pregnant fiancée of Vinny (Dylan O’Brien, The Maze Runner, Love and Monsters), a roguish yet handsome pimp and drug dealer who is running the operation. Vinny indulges in trusts with the other workers—including Ponyboi—behind Angel’s back, though this focus on quality control through personal testing doesn’t extend to the drugs that he sells. When a mob boss dies due to a bad product while in bed with Ponyboi, who in turn runs off with the the mobster’s suitcase in a panic, all hell breaks loose and events are set in motion that will either spell the end of Vinny’s operation or the end of Ponyboi’s young life.
Director Esteban Arango sets the tone nicely enough and has a distinct sense of style, though when it’s focused on being a crime drama, Ponyboi sticks largely to familiar territory. When it’s a character drama about a fascinating personality battling the demons of their past and trying to navigate a less-than-ideal present, it’s something new and exciting. Ponyboi grapples with the issue of whether to make things right with their dying father, the same man who tried to bully a son born without testicles into surgery to “turn him into a real man,” and who ultimately kicked that same son out of the house for embracing a more feminine side. This element of the story, which includes childhood flashbacks that are alternately traumatic and nostalgic, is riveting and unforgettable. While the more conventional aspects of the story get in the way at times, they build enough suspense to create an entertaining mix.
Gallo, perhaps best known to audiences for their television work Love, Victor, gives a fearless and luminous performance that invites us to see the world through the eyes of a marginalized individual. Ponyboi is a character with whom most audiences may initially struggle to identify with, yet whose humanity and soul are so powerful that it reminds us that our differences don’t change the fact that we are all more alike than we think. The way Ponyboi leans into the characteristics of one gender over another, depending on the circumstance, is an honest and eye-opening portrayal of an intersex individual from a first-hand perspective that is long overdue. O’Brien has come a long way as an actor since the days of starring in trashy movies like American Assassin, and this intense and captivating performance is already garnering attention. Pedretti is a strong presence as Angel, and Murray Bartlett (The White Lotus) is intriguing as Bruce, an enigmatic man in whom Ponyboi sees an opportunity to find love and acceptance.
Ponyboi is Gallo’s movie all the way, as it should be. It’s a bold and transcendent performance that is screaming out to be seen, and if Hollywood is willing to look at Gallo and even one more role can be written for them with even a fraction of this depth, it could be a game changer. –Patrick Gibbs