“What is it Erykah Badu says? ‘Now keep in mind I’m an artist and I’m sensitive about my shit.’”
River Gallo is quoting a lyric from “Tyrone,” the defiant 1997 song often considered one of Badu’s best. Three days after our Zoom conversation, Gallo’s first movie—the propulsive thriller Ponyboi—will premiere at the Sundance FIlm Festival, indie Hollywood’s star-making nerve center. Even the toughest renegade would be nervous. Gallo, a queer activist last seen discussing their intersex experiences in last year’s documentary Every Body, is on the precipice of something big.
For good reason. Ponyboi, which Gallo wrote and stars in, has an electric charge. The title character is a multihyphenate—sex worker, laundromat custodian, drug dealer, Bruce Springsteen fan (“every Jersey girl is”)—whose already turbulent world is rocked when a heavyset mobster takes a second hit of meth and croaks on his watch. Knowing his unscrupulous boss (Dylan O’Brien) will flip, Ponyboi takes off running. What follows is a blend of Tangerine, David Lynch, the one-wild-night comedy Go, and, as Gallo enthusiastically describes it, a Lana Del Rey music video.
Ponyboi, directed by Esteban Arango, has lived within Gallo for a while. First, it was a theater piece Gallo wrote as a New York University student. Then it became a short film they submitted to get into a master’s program at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, and then it became another, more sophisticated short that premiered in 2019 at the Tribeca Festival. (You can watch it on YouTube.) Now, Ponyboi is a 103-minute feature with a cast that includes Murray Bartlett, You’s Victoria Pedretti, and Pose’s Indya Moore. In between other creative channels, including an appearance on the Hulu series Love, Victor, Gallo kept returning to the story of this equinely named runaway.
“In many ways, Ponyboi was me,” Gallo tells The Daily Beast’s Obsessed. “In every iteration, it was, ‘How can I, in some way, use this for my own healing, to discover more about who I am?’ For better or worse, I’m just the type of artist that my main medium is myself and my own body and the way I experience the world. I’ve used Ponyboi to deepen my understanding of myself, but I’ve also come to know that it’s through my understanding of my own self that I’m able to help other people. My work is about liberation and transcending.”
For a long time, the way Gallo experienced the world was inherently different. As a pubescent teenager, none of the doctors who surveyed Gallo told them they were intersex, the term used to describe someone with chromosomes and anatomy that don’t fit the biological boxes of “male” and “female.” Gallo underwent one of the surgeries professionals lean on to “correct” those features. It wasn’t until they were doing research for the second Ponyboi short that Gallo learned the word “intersex”—and, crucially, that they weren’t alone in identifying that way. Unlike other forms of queerness, intersexuality is still largely disregarded in mainstream pop culture. Aside from Jeffrey Eugiendes’ novel Middlesex and supporting characters on Freaks and Geeks and MTV’s Faking It, there aren’t many depictions to draw from.
After that, Gallo lost faith in the medical establishment. “It broke my heart and my brain,” they say. Gallo started advocating for legislation that bans doctors from performing cosmetic operations on minors’ genitals, and they doubled down on using art as a means of self-actualization. When Ponyboi flees the scene of his client’s death, he makes a pharmaceutical pitstop in hopes of securing the hormone supplements he’ll need on the road. Fortunately, Ponyboi picks up a sort of guardian angel along the way—or, rather, the guardian angel picks up Ponyboi. A flirtatious cowboy (Bartlett) who’d stopped by the laundromat during Gallo’s shift cruises past Ponyboi on his way to Vegas and offers his passenger seat. Filmed with soft, hazy lighting, Bartlett’s scenes play like a fantasy, his masculine sex appeal igniting something tender amid Ponyboi’s turmoil. The lingering question: Can they outpace Ponyboi’s pimp?
Despite how integral it’s become to American mythology—John Wayne, the Marlboro Man—much of cowboy culture originated in Spain and Latin America. Gallo’s family ran cattle farms in El Salvador, and the actor recently discovered a photograph of their grandfather wearing a white cowboy hat not unlike the one Bartlett wears in the movie. “Initially, when I was making the short film, these signals of masculinity took root in an American, white masculinity,” they say. “But as I was making the feature film, I got deeper into realizing that it actually is related to my Latin dad. My parents sought freedom here in America. What cowboys represent—trailing the West—my parents represented in coming here and leaving their farms.”
In blazing a trail of their own, Gallo was heartened to see how warmly people responded to the Ponyboi script. Emma Thompson and Stephen Fry produced the short, and the actors who read the feature were enthusiastic about playing characters caught in such larger-than-life circumstances. Thick accents, big emotions, frenetic plot turns—that’s the stuff a performer dreams of. O’Brien even wrote his own amateurish rap verse to recite during a particularly amusing post-coital scene. “It allowed people to create characters that were, on some level, elevated,” Gallo says. “They’re camp, but they’re completely grounded in this wild story that’s full of heart and blood.”
What sort of shelf life Ponyboi will see is Gallo’s next hurdle. The movie is seeking distribution out of Sundance, hoping to enter a marketplace relatively ungenerous to films that aren’t linked to some sort of well-known intellectual property. But Ponyboi could go the way of Tangerine, the breakout hit from 2015 about trans sex workers stomping around central Los Angeles, or Beach Rats, which anointed Harris Dickinson a star in 2017.
“It’s festivals like Sundance that push the envelope of what independent cinema is,” Gallo says. “The filmmakers who participate create a new dialogue and a new discourse in the culture that changes hearts and minds—not just on social-justice issues, but philosophically and existentially and whatever it means to be human.”