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The Intersex Protagonist in “Ponyboi” Is a Revelation

PARK CITY, UTAH – JANUARY 20: River Gallo attends the 2024 Sundance Film Festival “Ponyboi” premiere at the Library Center Theatre on January 20, 2024, in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Stephen Greathouse/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)

By Lucy Spicer

Every once in a while, a film comes along that makes you think, “This is important.” Esteban Arango’s Ponyboi, screening in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, is one of those films. This hilarious, suspenseful, heartwarming, heart-wrenching, thought-provoking, genre-bending adventure is destined to take its place as a landmark work in the queer cinema canon. 

The audience at the film’s January 20 premiere at the Library Center Theatre in Park City, Utah, seems to agree. “The movie is one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen in my entire life,” says one audience member at Ponyboi’s post-premiere Q&A. “I laughed, I cried, I had a meltdown, it was incredible.” 

All this describes a story about a single day in New Jersey. Specifically, it’s Valentine’s Day, and intersex sex worker Ponyboi (a phenomenal performance by screenwriter River Gallo) is about to have a wild 24 hours. A drug deal goes wrong, a handsome stranger appears, a friendship is tested, an escape is attempted, and so much more.

“It started deep in the depths of New Jersey,” says Gallo. “It started out of a desire to want to express the different ways in which I felt like an outsider in my life through different intersecting identities — being intersex, being Latinx, being from New Jersey, which, I think, has a special liminal relationship to reality.” The audience laughs at that last bit, but Gallo is completely serious.

“Living next to New York, where all your dreams are possible, to being just a bridge and tunnel away from all of that, and just the concept of being so close, yet so far, to who you wanna be and the life that you want. And I think for a long time, I was haunted by that,” says Gallo.

“Our vision was ‘find the beauty behind the grit, behind the ugly bits of New Jersey,’” adds Arango, who was last at the Festival in 2020 with his film Blast Beat. “There’s so much beauty. That’s why you see so much contrast in this movie. It’s filled with sadness, but so much joy as well. So much hope.”

And hope is a key part of Ponyboi. Amid the mobster chases and neon lights are scenes that hold such tenderness — dreamy scenes where reality seems suspended and Ponyboi can imagine a better future, but also quiet moments where he is reckoning with his identity and how that fits with the identity that others want for him. 

An especially memorable scene features a conversation between Ponyboi and Charlie, played by Indya Moore. “I can confidently say this is the first time a scene [where] an intersex person — and maybe trans-questioning person — and a trans woman are talking to each other about the differences and similarities of their experience. This is the first time that’s ever happened in cinema,” says Gallo to audience cheers.

Ponyboi started out as a theater piece when Gallo was at New York University, and then it became a short film, and now it’s a feature garnering multiple standing ovations at its Sundance Film Festival premiere. It’s been a decadelong journey for Gallo.   

“Essentially, I’ve always wanted to create something that could give people hope that it’s OK to be uncertain with where you are in your life,” says Gallo. “And creating an intimacy with that uncertainty, I think, is the antidote to a lot of the despair that we feel, and the kind of existential crisis of living.”

To see more of the magic from the 2024 Festival, click here.