Ponyboi is a runaway, working at a laundromat in New Jersey and selling his body to make a living. Intersex and estranged from his family, he tries his best to find a sense of belonging, tenderness and affection within a lonely, seedy life. Too often, though, he has to tolerate cruelty and callousness to settle for scraps of attention.
One night, though, a mysterious man enters the laundromat. He’s the strong and silent type, but also kind and attentive — and a strange, fairytale-like encounter with him helps Ponyboi confront his deepest fears and sadness, and realize he’s worth more than what he is settling for.
Combining the seediness of the Jersey boardwalk with a core of tender romanticism, writer and lead actor River Gallo’s gritty yet enchanting short drama — directed by Sade Clacken Joseph and River Gallo and executive produced by Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson and Seven Graham — feels very much like a queer, magical-realist riff on a Bruce Springsteen ballad. It takes the codes and symbolism of a certain strain of nostalgic working-class Americana and spins it into poetic, audacious, and unexpected directions, creating a moving paean to self-love, courage and imagination.
The visual baseline is a certain kind of gritty naturalism, reminiscent of American indie directors like Gus Van Sant or Allison Anders, but it’s gently stylized as well, as painful scenes of Ponyboi’s life blending into dreamy, melancholy dreamscapes, complete with graceful camerawork and a muted, melancholy palette. In many ways, the craftsmanship in and of itself possesses a striking, subversive androgyny, especially as it takes usually masculine tropes and reframed them within a dreamy fairytale-like lens.
The form deftly reflects the themes explored in the storytelling, which touches upon little-explored terrain in popular culture. Ponyboi’s story is a relatable one about standing for your self-worth, but it can’t help but be impacted by growing up intersex in a world governed by rigid norms. The plot lightly touched upon the challenges that a young Ponyboi faced and their connection to his current situation, but the focus emotionally is on his internal journey, which is powerfully portrayed by Gallo themselves in the titular role.
As Ponyboi comes to realize the gap between the limitations of his life and the yearnings of his heart, he must confront the core question of what he himself believes he deserves, having internalized the messages of rejection and dehumanization he’s faced all his life. By exploring the fullness of his dreams and opening up to being fully seen, heard and cherished, he is finally able to love and value himself and find a path to healing.
With an extensive and highly acclaimed festival run under its belt, “Ponyboi” has the distinction of being the first narrative film by and about an intersex individual, which is a historical achievement in and of itself. And while this focus is an integral part of its creative DNA, it’s also a finely wrought, beautifully crafted story about finding self-love and self-acceptance.
Through its powerful openheartedness and vulnerability, it’s a beautiful, even rhapsodic piece of art that transports viewers into a warm embrace of self-acceptance alongside its main character. We all have deep, broken places within ourselves, and hope and healing can be found with a radical acceptance of who we are and what we truly want — and the bravery to stand for that, and refuse to settle for anything less.