THE STORY – Unfolding over the course of Valentine’s Day in New Jersey, a young intersex sex worker must run from the mob after a drug deal goes sideways, forcing him to confront his past.
THE CAST – River Gallo, Dylan O’Brien, Victoria Pedretti, Murray Bartlett & Indya Moore
THE TEAM – Esteban Arango (Director) & River Gallo (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 103 Minutes
The large pantheon of stories that have existed since the beginning of time will always find themselves housing familiar trappings. It can be difficult to break free from certain restraints and deliver a work that feels fresh and innovative. The main remedy utilized to avoid persistent monotony lies within the perspective brought to the piece. The voice and personality infused within a particular effort are what illuminate the most profound meaning within and make it something worthy of appreciation. Admittedly, there is a foundation to “Ponyboi” that indulges in the conventional. However, building from that groundwork is anything but safe and traditional. There is a centered viewpoint here that speaks to an undervalued expression of identity, and that aspect is cause for celebration, even if the film may falter elsewhere.
Ponyboi (River Gallo) is gearing up for an eventful night on a gloomy Valentine’s Day evening in New Jersey. They are an intersex sex worker, barely getting by in a life that has existed alongside so much trauma. Their work is complicated even further by the relationship with Vinny (Dylan O’Brien), the small-time pimp and drug dealer who has higher aspirations for his gangster lifestyle. He sends Ponyboi out to a client with a special batch of crystal meth that was just cooked up. During an encounter with a high-level mobster, an accident occurs, and the man drops dead. This sends Ponyboi into a spiral, desperately trying to figure out what to do next. Their journey takes them on a quest to replenish a depleted hormone regimen, reigniting an old rivalry and crossing paths with a mystery stranger with promises of a better life. Every new venture is also a port to explore the damage done by the past, bringing about an inevitable yet powerful catharsis.
Undoubtedly, the most significant impression in “Ponyboi” is Gallo’s charismatic talent. Their exuberance and radiant energy were already showcased last year as interview subjects in the documentary “Every Body.” And, here, they get to demonstrate that captivating aura yet again, this time in a role that plays to both the alluring humor and devastating drama of the film. It’s a role that thrives on the specificity of the character that fills in some of the broader outlines, but Gallo is an engaging enough figure to guide the audience through this turbulent terrain. They can embody the charisma that easily envelopes those around them while maintaining the current of self-destruction that constantly makes the tragic circumstances feel poignant. It’s quite a compelling turn that is delightful to watch unfold on screen.
The supporting players also comprise a stable of intriguing performances, chief among them being O’Brien. He perfectly captures the sleazy, lowlife gangster whose manipulation and control are dominant forces on every person in his life. It’s a villainous turn with almost no nuance, but his portrayal is so engrossing in how he revels in the chilling depravity. There’s also a lovely appearance from Murray Bartlett as a traveler who crosses paths with Ponyboi, striking up a possible romance that indulges in Bartlett’s easygoing charm. Another great standout is Indya Moore as the antagonistic acquaintance who burns up the screen with her intense and gripping presence.
As attractive as these performances are, they all serve material that has mixed results when providing a more absorbing piece of storytelling. Gallo also wrote the film, and while much of it is riveting in its exploration of character, the plot mechanics that build the structure of the narrative are not particularly extraordinary. The criminal element is fairly generic and boilerplate. Given that this is the story’s framework, it can often leave the enticing character moments undercut by the more mundane aspects of the screenplay. Director Esteban Arango does a creditable job of infusing the film with a vibrant aesthetic that plays to both the dark underworld and the occasional fantastical sequences that give insight into the protagonist’s emotional state. In the end, the writing feels like it’s more of a platform for these specific characters and experiences rather than providing an impressive tale to follow.
People will most likely be struck by much of what “Ponyboi” sets out to accomplish. At its core, it is an attempt to bring about a fresh point of view into a landscape well-trodden by countless other versions that play to the commonplace spaces previously seen. In some ways, the film struggles to completely break free from those restraints, ultimately preventing it from becoming a wholly unique enterprise. However, there is enough to sustain interest, given its singular stance regarding the central figure. That creation from Gallo is endlessly fascinating and is an appealing discovery to make.