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Sundance 2024: ‘Ponyboi’: A Subversive Crime Thriller

An engaging story that offers insight into the lives of exploited sex workers.
River Gallo and Dylan O’Brien appear in “Ponyboi” by Esteban Arango, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)


Ponyboi,” based on the short of the same name, is an eclectic mix of crime story tropes with a fresh coat of queer paint. It all comes together for an engaging story that offers insight into the lives of exploited sex workers.

Taking place on Valentine’s Day in a rain-soaked 2000s New Jersey, the eponymous Ponyboi (played by River Gallo who uses they/them pronouns; the character uses he/him), an intersex sex worker, finds himself on the run from his pimp Vinny (Dylan O’Brien). Along the way, he tries to get help from his work BFF and Vinny’s girlfriend Angel (Victoria Pedretti) while stumbling across a mysterious cowboy Bruce (Murray Bartlett). Ponyboi knows he can’t leave without one very important thing.

A Whirlwind Night

Gallo gives Ponyboi the kind of sympathy this unconventional protagonist needs as everyone in his life judges him for not being what they think he should be. His estranged and dying father wanted him to be a boy, but based on his gender expression others in the film want him to be a girl. Ponyboi just wants someone to accept him for how he is. When a wayward cowboy Bruce appears and shows that exact kind of interest, how could he not fall for him?

After being kicked out of his house at a young age, Ponyboi falls into Vinny’s employ at his laundromat and turned to a life of sex work. This narrative is unfortunately true to life. It’s Ponyboi’s mother that urges him to come home, and his father wants to make amends which seems too good to be true. After an encounter with a client, Lucky (Stephen Moscatello), goes bad on account of Vinny’s botched batch of crystal meth, Ponyboi decides it’s time to leave this life behind and seeks out Bruce’s help.

Before this, Ponyboi has to get his testosterone and jumps from one place to place looking for help, first at Angel’s place — before he lets slip he’s been cheating on her with everyone in his employ and gets kicked out.

Angel is a bit ditzy at first, but Pedretti is so likeable that it wouldn’t have mattered if she remained that way throughout the movie. As the night unfolds Angel learns her boyfriend and future father of their child isn’t the sweetheart she thought he was. Beneath the surface, she only finds more and more scumminess. 

O’Brien has struggled to find the right role outside of “Teen Wolf” and the “Maze Runner,” where he mainly played straight hero roles. This has led to him taking on out-of-the-box roles on other projects like “Weird City,” “Love and Monsters” and “American Assassin.” This is great on one hand because he’s nailed all of them, showing his versatility as an actor, but also frustrating because it’s taking so long for him to receive industry recognition.

This is the first time he’s played an utterly reprehensible antagonist. O’Brien is so charismatic that this sleazy dirtbag is still completely fun to see on screen. He acts with desperation as he scours the city for Ponyboi after he realises the danger he’s in with Lucky’s vengeful brother Two Tones (Keith William Richards) hot on his heels.

Things get a little muddled by the time the climax comes around, but it’s worth sitting through for an emotionally resonant epilogue which leaves the film on a high note.

An Open Future

One of the most commendable achievements of the movie is how it’s a story that never lectures or talks down to the audience. Putting the story first emphasizes the journey the characters go through and opens up the opportunity for empathy from the audience.

Midway through the film Ponyboi has a heart-to-heart with Charlie (Indya Moore), one of Vinny’s past “girls” who managed to get herself out from under him and establish a life for herself. She criticizes Ponyboi initially but relents when she sees he does need testosterone injections to feel like himself. She leaves him with the statement that all gender expression is “smoke and mirrors.”

The movie is part of Sundance’s 2024 U.S. Dramatic Competition, but unfortunately did not win anything and has yet to be picked up by a distributor. Based on the critical praise and Gallo’s performance, it’s safe to say that this unconventional story has a future past Sundance.


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About the Contributor
Andre Montoya, Arts Writer
Andre Montoya is a senior at the University of Utah double majoring in English and communications with an emphasis in journalism. He began writing for the Arts Desk at the Daily Utah Chronicle in Fall 2022. Previously, he has written for the West View Media and Voices of Utah, formerly run by now retired U professor Dr. Kim Mangun. He can often be found around campus glued to his laptop working on assignments or at the Student Life Center exercising. In his free time, he enjoys reading novels, photography, binge-watching shows and movies, or spending time with friends.

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