The Sundance Film Festival prides itself on being a place of innovation and discovery, and this year’s 40th anniversary celebration has an entry that could well check both boxes – “Ponyboi,” a genre-blending road movie featuring writer and star River Gallo.
Gallo plays the titular Ponyboi, an intersex sex worker hustling to survive in New Jersey. His days are spent with pregnant best friend Angel (Victoria Pedretti) working a strip mall laundromat; his nights with his secret lover and aspiring pimp, Angel’s baby’s father Vinnie (Dylan O’Brien). As it often happens on the turnpike, things go south when some tainted crystal meth and a dead mafioso spin Ponyboi’s fragile world into chaos, forcing him to confront his demons.
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Gallo is writer and star on the project. A pedigreed artist who came up through USC and the Sundance labs, they are intersex and identify as non-binary and trans fem using they/them pronouns. In addition to weaving elements of crime, action and gritty comedy, the film provides a rare lens into the intersex experience. Gallo says they were raised as a “normal” boy, but at age 12, their parents disclosed they were born with a condition called Anochria, where testicles are absent at birth. Without Gallo’s consent, they underwent cosmetic surgery and testosterone treatment to present as a cisgender man.
Having spent years hiding their true identity, Gallo brings the full force of their history to “Ponyboi,” which stokes an important and unprecedented conversation about a spectrum of acceptable masculinity and femininity and the pressure for certain queer people to assimilate. Ahead of Saturday’s world premiere, Variety caught up with Gallo for a roving conversation about their looming breakout moment.
This project was made with a Sundance grant. Did you come up through the labs here?
I was a part of the inaugural Trans Possibilities Intensive in 2021, specifically for trans and non-binary filmmakers. They helped, certainly with giving mentorship on my script and with a grant. It was nice to have the Sundance Institute’s involvement from the development phase, especially as an emerging artist. It gives you hope that your work will come to fruition.
Where did this idea begin?
This started as a theater piece during my undergraduate program at NYU. It was a 10-minute piece that evolved into a 40-minute performance art piece. The character wasn’t called Ponyboi at the time, but it was centered around a queer sex worker in New Jersey who was grappling with his identity. It was a lot weirder, a more John Waters aesthetic. I was at a place where art was the only way for me to gain a deeper understanding of myself. Later, I translated it into a short film when I went to USC. It was just a story that I couldn’t shake off still.
I came to a place where I wanted to talk about my medical history and being intersex. It wasn’t something that I knew the words for. Also, there hadn’t been any intersex narrative films before. I was shocked by that.
The lens around queer and trans identities in indie movies is often sad or hopeless. But you do an amazing job of bringing in elements of comedy and action on top of a larger emotional struggle. I was also fascinated by the role of hormones in this story – what kind the character chooses to take and why. The people around him have very specific motives in how they want Ponyboi to present.
Thank you. When I came out as intersex and, later, non-binary and trans fem, I realized that had to be a part of the discourse of the movie. So many queer stories are focused on either the coming out or the transition — and the pain involved in that. I wanted to make something more nuanced and complex. The conversation has evolved. There’s a scene between my character and Indya Moore’s that strikes me as vital or medicinal for the culture. It’s talking about the difference between being intersex and being trans and the expectations that people have of either community.
People do want Ponyboi to be one thing, and perhaps Ponyboi has a curiosity to be a singular thing. What he finds is that maybe it’s OK to be in a state of confusion and indecision. That is natural and beautiful. That’s not exclusive to queer cinema, it’s a universal story. Being more intimate with uncertainty and the process of “becoming” becomes really cool.
Indya is so impactful with a very brief part. You’ve got an incredible cast for a first-time feature — Dylan O’Brien and Victoria Pedretti and Murray Bartlett, too. How did they come on board?
Murray had seen my short in 2019 at Tribeca, he had a friend [in the festival] at the same time. He messaged me shortly after. When my director pitched him for the role he plays in “Ponyboi,” he was filming “The Last of Us.” It’s wild, the seeds you can plant as a student filmmaker. Victoria became a good friend of mine because we’re both repped at Management 360.
Dylan was the last one to come on board. We faced a lot of challenges with that role. We had to find someone that wasn’t afraid of the subject matter considering the sensitivity that a lot of actors feel around telling stories that involve identities or communities that aren’t always represented. There is fear and trepidation around that. The character needed to be someone that could bring levity and playfulness and humor, and also be legitimately scary. I was really conscious when I wrote that role, making sure that he was as human as possible and not just a two dimensional. I feel like Ponyboi and Dylan’s character Vinnie are both anti-heroes. That’s what I love about their dynamic.
I fell out of my chair during the scene when he started rapping.
He wrote that himself. I just had placeholder notes in the script. He made it up, and it was actually so much better than anything I could do.
Did you help Victoria with her amazing New Jersey accent?
She’s also from Philly, so she knows what she’s doing. She grew up going to the Jersey Shore. We also used the same dialect coach, so she really brought it. Her character Angel is another one where, you think you know that girl. She’s ditsy but in the end, she surprises you, she becomes the hero of the movie in a way.
What are you looking to do next, creatively?
I’m writing my next feature film that I definitely want to star in, but also looking toward directing. I want to wear all those hats. I had an amazing director on this, but it was so hard for me to release control of certain things because I had such a sharp vision in mind when writing “Ponyboi.” I’m ready to start directing. Aside from that, I’d also like to return to the stage. I started in theater. Broadway was always my biggest dream, so I would like to properly do stage acting.
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