Life for Ponyboi (River Gallo) has been no walk in the park. “I was born a little different,” he explains in regards to his being intersex (male-identifying/female-presenting), which led his Salvadorian immigrant parents to reject him for not “choosing” to be a traditional man. On his own from a very young age, Ponyboi eventually found safety with Vinny (Dylan O’Brien), a pimp who uses a laundromat as cover to run a drug business. But Ponyboi dreams of romance and a life out of a Marlboro ad imagined by Lisa Frank.

He drifts into a neon-pink glittery dream tunnel while riding one of the disgusting men who fetishize and hire him to fulfill their fantasies. Everyone wants something out of Ponyboi, but no one asks what he wants. His fantasy is to be rescued by a sensitive cowboy, which is why he can’t believe his eyes when he first sees Bruce (Murray Bartlett), a rugged artifact out of vintage Americana, smile gently at him as he enters the laundromat. Hypnotized by this dream-like figure, Ponyboi is surprised when he utters magical words, “I want to hear you.”

After the fantasy encounter, Ponyboi is dragged back to Earth upon finding himself next to the body of a mobster client dead from the bad crystal meth Vinny cooked and sold him. The terrified Ponyboi, now pursued by Vinny––who is being pursued by the dead mobster’s henchmen––decides to flee to Las Vegas. Lucky for him he runs into Bruce, who offers a ride in exchange for one thing: “I want to get to know you.”

Somehow this combination of traditional crime-genre elements with moments of camp romance works like a charm; they become a representation of Ponyboi’s unique worldview. Gallo, who also wrote the screenplay, shows us a perspective we’ve never seen before: someone who doesn’t understand why the world demands he fits their standards. This also applies to the style of the film. Its extreme contrast between moments when Ponyboi has to deal with Vinny’s violent world and the beautifully earnest scenes with him and Bruce (drag artist Chiquitita serenades them to Kali Uchis’ “Melting” in a bar) never feel jarring, director Esteban Arango carefully balancing the tonal shifts.

There’s never a dull moment in the New Jersey-set thriller, which relentlessly gives its hero something to do. This business also comments on Ponyboi’s choice not to think about his father and deal with what those feelings of rejection did to him. Gallo cleverly avoids cheap psychology to establish that Ponyboi isn’t representing intersex people, but rather one specific fictional intersex individual. Rather than making Ponyboi’s privates the center of this story, Gallo smartly shows us how, as an intersex person, he has to go through things others might never even think about. The moment he realizes he needs to stock up on hormones before fleeing feels hilarious at first, another “now what?” situation, but it also serves as a teaching moment without ever being didactic. 

Gallo deftly gives us clear examples of how people who are rarely represented in cinema can play characters whose lives don’t revolve around what the system imposes on them. This is efficient for the film and an ingenious approach from Gallo, who shows off their acting skills across every genre via the rollercoaster of the screenplay they wrote. Anybody who watches Ponyboi knows there is probably nothing Gallo can’t do. Their charisma and screen presence alone make this worth a watch.

In addition to Gallo’s perfect performance, the film is populated with actors doing pure wonders. Bartlett is, per usual, a delight as he continues exploring different shades of subversive masculinity, and Indya Moore has a brief, unforgettable part as Ponyboi’s rival who made me think of the surreal, moving intensity of Mulholland Dr. But perhaps it’s O’Brien who will surprise most viewers––especially those who only know him from Teen Wolf––as the outlandish Vinny, who is always playing the part of “a man” he fearlessly shows the frailty of men. As someone who shows off his lothario skills by treating women like objects, but turns into a puddle rapping pathetically when he’s in bed with Ponyboi, the actor makes this idea of being a man seem exhausting, but more than that ridiculous. How are people like Vinny, hiding their true selves behind countless curtains, the ones who believe they have the right to demand anything from Ponyboi?  

Ponyboi premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.

Grade: B

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