Tribeca 2019 Review: ‘Ponyboi’

It can be read everywhere: queer cinema is on the rise. It’s quite hard to disprove that statement at first glance; there have been truly great films about queer individuals in the past years and they have garnered a level of attention that seemed almost impossible just two decades ago. But ‘queer’ can be a very dangerous word. While it eases the way to separate non-heteronormative experiences from heteronormative experiences, it also has the downside of being an umbrella term for a great amount of extremely distinct experiences, which can quickly blur their unique and autonomous nature. The term is already being criticized in larger discussions and even when not digging into those discussions, there is no denial that it has distorted the conversation around the rise of films that are inhabited and led by queer characters. These films only apply to a certain, more widely accepted line-up of queer experiences. While gay, bisexual and lesbian films have certainly managed to thrive in recent memory and offer more stories that don’t merely exist to please and educate straight audiences, there still is a dangerously high amount of cinema about other forms of sexual expression, that does exactly that and gets away with it, only because their filmmakers are also ‘queer.’ Case in point, the highly-irresponsible Girl, directed by a gay, cis-gender man. It’s a film which both fetishizes the trans body and wallows in exploitation of trans pain for affect, which didn’t hinder it from being celebrated by critics and rewarded with several festival prizes.

Obviously this doesn’t apply to every single one of these films. Cases for Tangerine have been made as a film that grapples with and respects the trans struggle, while being directed by a non-trans person that has merely done his research. There simply is a frequent amount of examples that reduce queer individuals to concepts, stemming from a lack of accuracy and nuance by filmmakers that are not a part of the represented group. These films are dangerous, because they distort other people’s experiences and create misconceptions and prejudice in the eyes of uneducated viewers. It’s not that the filmmakers don’t usually mean well, but they often simply don’t do enough to redeem this intention.

While the inter* community doesn’t have a lot of representation on-screen in general, rare exceptions such as XXY and Predestination display how right and wrong it can go in the hands of non-inter* filmmakers. So it’s a great pleasure that with Ponyboi, there’s finally a piece of intersex representation made by an intersex-man, about an intersex-man and it’s an even greater pleasure that it’s wonderful.

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Ponyboi works at a launderette, both as an employee to keep the floors clean, as well as a sex worker who meets with customers in his room in the back. On Valentine’s Day, he has a peculiar dream about an attractive, older man with a white cowboy hat and a fancy car, who drives him everywhere he wants. What at first just seems like exactly that — a dream quickly becomes something entirely different, as Ponyboi spots the said car in front of the building.

Lush neon colours cover the character’s faces inside the launderette. It’s a great setting for stories of the night, because its bright lights carve out the smallest expressions in people’s faces. Ponyboi confidently utilizes that aesthetic and its prospect for a higher reliance on lighting to shape its visual style. It looks gorgeous and the aesthetic consistency is heightened by the crossfade-heavy editing that fuses a dreamlike quality into the film’s visual flow. When it comes to Ponyboi’s room, the production design shines. It’s full of clutter that has crucial meaning later on, while posing as a place of outward expression that is confined into a space — a narrative beat that comes into play again when Ponyboi gets to a point of heightened self-confidence and leaves the room. The acting is spotless across the board and lead actor/writer/director River Gallo in particular shines in moments of complex inner and outer struggle that are built up with quite a surprising amount of intensity over the film’s short runtime. While these emotions are strong and genuine and finally lead to the success of the story, there is a grand virtue in the breathing space that Gallo gives the film to establish its setting into a palpable world. The pitch-perfect needle drops are the icing on the cake.

On a thematic level, Ponyboi is concerned with the correlation between having dreams and making an inner leap of faith to the realization that you are good enough to achieve them. This is an immensely difficult task, when the entire world seems to look down on you. Ponyboi looks for affirmation, but finally realizes that he can do without, because all the affirmation he really needs is buried somewhere inside of him. Sure, it can be excruciatingly difficult to go on without feeling loved by someone, but learning self-love is not only one of the most difficult things you can strive for as a marginalized person; it’s also one of the most powerful.

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River Gallo’s short film is proud and loud — in fact it is the first narrative film created by and starring an out intersex person in the history of cinema, and thus quite a landmark. It’s apparent that there is a crucial understanding of nuance and detail of an experience that could’ve hardly been provided by non-intersex filmmakers. Once again, the point is not that there shouldn’t be intersex films by non-intersex filmmakers. But, it’s really essential to give marginalized groups of sexual expression the control over their stories so the public perception of their identity isn’t blurred by someone else’s gaze. Here’s to hoping that Ponyboi paves the way for more intersex stories told by intersex people and finally giving them a proper canon of on-screen representation. It certainly is a great start.

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