Drew Burnett Gregory is back at Sundance, reporting daily with queer movie reviews from one of the world’s most prestigious film festivals. Follow along for her coverage of the best in LGBTQ+ cinema and beyond.
The thing you need to know about Ponyboi is that it’s so fucking fun.
It’s true writer and star River Gallo has crafted a movie with intersex representation unlike anything we’ve seen before. It’s true there is an emotional arc of an intersex sex worker struggling to forgive his family for the surgeries forced upon him as a child. It’s true the film is filled with a range of violence and heartbreak.
But, my God, is this film FUN.
The brilliance of Ponyboi — an expansion of Gallo’s short film of the same name — is the way it wraps itself in both a romantic fantasy and a delicious crime story. You can see the beats one might expect from a Sundance film focusing on an underrepresented identity. But they’re presented with laughs and gasps and eroticism.
Ponyboi is about an intersex person named Ponyboi (Gallo) who works as a sex worker out of a laundromat owned by pimp/drug dealer Vinny (Dylan O’Brien). Vinny is about to have a baby with Ponyboi’s best friend Angel (Victoria Pedretti), but Vinny and Ponyboi are also fucking on the side. Vinny is trying to get Ponyboi to switch from testosterone to estrogen and to get his tits done — less because that’s something Ponyboi wants and more because it would be good for business.
On Valentine’s Day, Ponyboi’s melancholy life is upended when Vinny’s shitty latest batch gets them in trouble with some gangsters. Ponyboi wants to run away — possibly with sexy cowboy Bruce (Murray Bartlett) — but first he needs to refill his hormones. All before Vinny or the gangster catch up with him.
The genre conventions aren’t just a way to serve an ignorant audience intersex knowledge. Gallo, director Esteban Arango, and the entire cast are having a blast playing in this world. O’Brien is alternately hilarious and terrifying as a cliché Jersey boy and Pedretti is alternately hilarious and heartbreaking as a cliché Jersey girl. All the gangsters flounce around with the subtlety of a Tarantino movie. And Bartlett is a fantasy of masculinity come to life. All of these ingredients combine for a plot that may not be original outside of its lead, but does always remain tight and propulsive.
The first scene with Bartlett is especially wonderful as his cowboy Bruce and Ponyboi flirt over a shared Jersey love of Bruce Springsteen. Their duet of “I’m On Fire” that could have been trite, feels only hot and sweet with performers this talented.
There are multiple ways to read the reality of the action on-screen. I love that the film lives in the fantasy space without over-explaining. Is Bruce a fiction? Maybe. Is he any more fictional than the crime plot of Ponyboi’s life? Not really. Are these genre conventions any more absurd than the horror movie of operating on children to conform their bodies to socially constructed ideas of gender? No.
Reminiscent of the Wachowskis’ Bound, Ponyboi is a queer cinema genre pastiche that understands a movie can be artful, emotional, and incredibly entertaining.
My only complaint is that Springsteen’s “Pony Boy” doesn’t play over the end credits. But that’s okay — “I’m On Fire” is better anyway.
Ponyboi is streaming for the rest of the day on the Sundance virtual platform.