Go backBack to selection

“The NJ Turnpike as a Symbol of Autonomy” | River Gallo, Ponyboi

A man leans over a femme-presenting person's shoulder. They gaze into each other's eyes.Ponyboi, courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Films are made of and from places: the locations they are filmed in, the settings they are meant to evoke, the geographies where they are imagined and worked on. What place tells its own story about your film, whether a particularly challenging location that required production ingenuity or a map reference that inspired you personally, politically or creatively?

The landscape of New Jersey—both the physical and psychic landscape, in all its gritty, fragile, and transient majesty—was my muse in creating Ponyboi. Blue-collar homes, the billowing smoke of oil refineries, neon lit diners and strip clubs, all populate my mind when I think of my home state. When I wrote Ponyboi, I was trying to capture the feeling of a displaced sense of belonging which is how I felt growing up in New Jersey. It’s not quite the dazzling lights of New York City, the center of the world where in the mythology of the United States—and to millions around the world—all your dreams come true, but rather it’s the place that’s a bridge and tunnel away from all that action. So close, yet so far. To call New Jersey home means to inhabit a sort of liminal space of longing for more, for change, but also perhaps either stuck or complacent in the illusion that this must be enough.

On the day we meet our protagonist, Ponyboi, he finds himself reckoning with this very impasse. However, for Ponyboi, the stakes are higher and more expansive than just a geographical conundrum—he decides to leave Jersey after a drug deal goes wrong. For the first time, Ponyboi confronts the expectations that the world has of him in relation to his gender and the ways those expectations have kept him stuck. This clarity allows him to see the glimmers of a new future outside of Jersey and how to inch his way closer to choosing who he truly wants to be and what kind of life or body he would like to have. I knew I wanted to end the movie with a message of the fluidity of choice and the freedom and ultimately the power that is found in surrendering to one’s constantly shifting perspectives and desires. I couldn’t think of a better backdrop to evoke this than the New Jersey Turnpike, a stretch of highway that runs through the entire state from North to South, which I drove on often as a kid on road trips to the Jersey shore. I’ve always been obsessed with highways, particularly the NJ Turnpike, as a symbol of autonomy, forward movement, and change. To end the film with Ponyboi driving on the New Jersey Turnpike, to me, represents his self-actualization in coming to terms with his own fluidity—that of his gender and of his dreams—and thus a new direction forward in his life.

See all responses to our annual Sundance Question here.

© 2024 Filmmaker Magazine. All Rights Reserved. A Publication of The Gotham