July 25, 2019

River Gallo '18 Reps New Jersey, the Intersex Community, (and SCA), with Buzzworthy Short Ponyboi

By Desa Philadelphia

River Gallo did not set out to make the first intersex narrative film. He just had a story he wanted to tell that was rooted in his experiences as a Jersey boy in search of his true identity. But Gallo’s School of Cinematic Arts (SCA) thesis film, Ponyboi, which he wrote, stars in, and co-directed with MFA ’18 classmate (and “best friend”) Sadé Clacken Joseph is enjoying a successful festival run, celebrated as the first film about an intersex character, made by an intersex filmmaker.

Ponyboi’s eponymous character works in a laundromat, and is a sometimes sex worker and a full-time dreamer. There is no denying he has faced abuse, currently from his pimp, but generally from life. Yet, Ponyboi manages to stay uniquely himself, with an optimistic disposition and a Jerseylicious glam look of big hair and contoured makeup. When his dream guy materializes on Valentine’s night in a form of a compassionate cowboy named Bruce, Ponyboi starts believing he might be able to rise above the physical and emotional trauma that has defined his past. 

Gallo/Clacken Joseph and cinematographer Madeline Leach—who also graduated from the Film & Television Production MFA in 2018—backlight the film in neon, creating a color palate that both speaks to the Jersey location as well as gives the film a tone of antithesis—desperation and hope both live in that laundromat.

The idea for the film came from Gallo’s experience as a Jersey boy who longed for an acceptance he thought he’d find in another place; if only he could find a way to get there. For Gallo, the place was New York City and New Jersey felt so close but yet so far away. “I think growing up in any suburb, but specifically New Jersey, has the case of having a chip on your shoulder, just ’cause you’re so close to the ‘greatest city in the world’ they say, but you’re just, like, a bridge away,” says Gallo. “There’s a sense of feeling trapped –– especially as a queer person, or a gay person, you feel that even doubled, where you’re so close to the city where you can be accepted, but you’re not there. And so, that was something that I carried in me for a long time. The central thing in creating my film was encapsulating that feeling of feeling trapped, wanting to escape, wanting something more out of life.”

Gallo finally made it to New York, to study acting at NYU (“They tried to beat that Jersey accent out of me and it still comes out sometimes!”) before coming to Los Angeles and to SCA. But while he had finally gotten out of Jersey, he couldn’t get Jersey out of him. “I’m from New Jersey [and] I rep New Jersey really hard.” Although, he admits, “it took awhile for me to have pride for where I’m from.” Another truth about his life Gallo needed to face was the trauma he suffered from procedures doctors convinced his parents were necessary to push his reluctant body into male puberty. When it came to doing his film, Gallo couldn’t ignore the sources of his inspiration.

Gallo didn’t actually realize that he was intersex until he started doing research for the film. “Intersex is pretty much an umbrella term for people born with various conditions where their body doesn’t line up with the particular characteristics of male or female, it’s just kind of like an in-between gender,” Gallo explains. “I knew I had a medical condition but I thought it was just like a medicalized thing, until I started writing Ponyboi and then, through writing it, I decided to Google the condition I was born with, to make the script more personal. Then, I stumbled on the term intersex, and on the whole intersex community. It was through making the film that I kind of affirmed my own identity.”

Ponyboihas played a number of festivals, snapping up awards including a GLAAD Rising Stars Grantfor Gallo. The film’s recognition as the first intersex film made by an intersex filmmaker wasn’t something the filmmakers realized until they couldn’t find any other films that fit the bill. Its list of producers also includes Emma Thompson and Stephen Fry, who wanted to help the film find an audience. Gallo has embraced the recognition, using the film as a way to advocate for other intersex people. “For the first time, intersex people are rallying together,” he says. “I think a large part of it has to do with social media and the internet, we’re able to find each other, voice our opinions, form communities, and fight back, realizing that our rights are being violated. Just a few years ago, the World Health Organization and the UN said that these unconsented cosmetic procedures were a human rights violation.”

The short’s success has also given Gallo the confidence he needs to dive deeper into the issues addressed in the film –– he’s currently writing a feature version of Ponyboi. While developing the SCA thesis he often relied on feedback from professors, who didn’t always understand where he was coming from. There’s a scene in Ponyboi about forced genital surgery that, based on notes from a professor, Gallo previously cut. But when he got pushback from his SCA classmates, who insisted he keep it in the film, Gallo re-added the scene, which is important to making the character feel fully fleshed out. “What people are moved by is that this is a universal character, who’s struggling to find himself,” says Gallo. “Yes, he’s introspective, yes he’s queer and Latinx, but at the end of the day he’s a human having a human experience. Focusing on that emotional narrative was the most important thing when creating it, so that I could ensure that audiences would connect with that and then, through that connection, almost trick them into learning about intersex activism.”

The film’s title has been confused for a reference to the 1983 coming of age film The Outsiders, and its lead character Ponyboy Curtis. It’s actually a reference to Bruce Springsteen, who the dreamy cowboy love interest is also named in honor of. “I’m a huge Bruce Springsteen fan. His writing, his music, just everything, is a big presence in this film,” says Gallo. 

Gallo’s visit to Asbury Park on the Jersey Shore and a venue called the Stone Pony, where Springsteen played one of his first concerts, were the inspiration for the character’s name.The Springsteen song Born to Runalso provided a thematic grounding for the film. “His lyrics have this poetic quality of specificity about Jersey, linked to a universal message: struggling to find belonging,” says Gallo. “That was the universal feeling I wanted. But then I looked towards my personal experience of growing up intersex, just dreaming that it would be through love, or through a guy that, y’know, would accept me, and we’d run off into the sunset together. But as I grew up I realized, through hardships and stuff that happened in my life, I realized there’s no one that’s gonna come save you, especially a man.”

Gallo might no longer need saving. But the rich inner life he has developed, and is now sharing with the world, will hopefully inspire other intersex filmmakers. “I come from the world of theater, and the theater work I was making originally was confessionary theater –– trying to create work that brought about a revelation in characters finding out that the things that were shameful about them were actually the things that made them beautiful,” says Gallo. With Ponyboi, he’s brought his confessions to the film world in a powerful way.

To learn more about Ponyboi, visit its website here.