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This year’s BFI Flare: London LGBTQ+ Film Festival has had to adapt like all global events, taking proceedings into a virtual space that audience members can access from the safety of their own homes. The positive outcome of this? The queer filmmaking on show has become more accessible for a wider audience, no matter where they are.

One of those titles is Pool Boy, a short film written and directed by Luke Willis, that tells the sultry, moving and seductive story of a non-binary pool cleaner played by River Gallo, who engages in a steamy and touching romance with college jock Austin.

We caught up with River to discuss why Pool Boy breaks the mould with trans representation, what’s important for the film industry to understand around portraying LGBTQ+ identities, and how River’s 2020 has shaped them into the person they are today.

What was your initial experience when you were told you had the part? What did you think of the concept of Pool Boy?
Well, my initial reaction was like, ‘wow, something to do during Covid!’ Because, you know, it’s been hard. On the one hand the industry is moving forward with non-binary representation and trans representation, but then it also feels like it’s not moving fast enough. As an actor I’ve been auditioning a lot, but I’m grateful to have an opportunity to be in front of the camera to shoot something and that be something that feels so sweet and heartfelt at the core. I feel like it’s a hard thing to do a good short film because it really feels like poetry in the sense that you really have to get to the essence of something really quickly or not quickly… You have to be economical with your language, with your words, and with the visual language.

With a lot of films showcasing trans representation and trans stories they can fall into a trope of ‘a mysterious non-binary person’ or being something to be mocked. But in Pool Boy this doesn’t feel subscribed to. Austin shows some slight shame at being attracted to your character Star in the film – did you find this difficult to play, or did it relate to your experience?
Upon initially reading the script, I also had my reservations of ‘is it going to play into those same tropes of exoticizing or fetishizing the non-binary person?’ We worked with this incredible intimacy co-ordinator and we talked a lot about what the intimacy would be like and that was all choreographed. Working with Tim Torre who plays Austin, he was just so sweet and so open in a kind of matter-of-fact way of knowing that this is the work that has to be done and this is an important story that has to be told with like zero ego about it. I think it is so important when allies go into this kind of work.

Watching it, it was really beautiful and emotional to see you as a non-binary person in the film and be embraced and be sexy. Did you feel joyous that you were able to showcase trans romance in a way that wasn’t about turmoil, and was focused on joy?
Absolutely! For the past year I’ve been working on my short film Ponyboy and the feature version of it is about healing my trauma being intersex, so I’ve just been kind of like living in this world of thinking about medicalized trauma, institutional trauma, and so to have Pool Boy where it’s just about love and about being adored and allowing yourself to to be adored, it was really really nice to do.

What do you think – from your experience of the film industry – needs to be done to ensure the wider industry knows that trans/queer people are capable of showcasing their joy rather than just their trauma?
I think the reality is that people are ready for new stories and for things that they haven’t been told over and over again in the last however many years, because I think the prevalence of how many trans and non-binary stories that are told will help. It’ll help visibility but also help establish an industry that can be successful and can be beautifu,l and people can be entertained and feel connected to trans stories – especially as queer, trans and non-binary filmmakers and creators continue to push past the narratives that are already, or have already been told and how to do them differently.

What are your hopes for how Pool Boy will impact the audience?
My initial impulse is to say that seeing it, I just want people to be turned on and be like ‘oh I can fancy you!’ That they can like and could be attracted and aroused by a non-binary or a trans person, and by the sensuality of it all. I think even as queer people or gay cis men, there’s a resistance and inherent transphobia around ‘I have to like a man or a masculine person’. That’s something that I really enjoyed about the film; that in the intimate scenes you’re just drawn to their connection, and that’s really exciting to me. People connecting to their intimacy and connection and feeling ‘oh maybe I can like whoever I want’.

For you personally, how does the climate feel right now in the States after the past year?
I mean, in a lot of ways it feels like a continuation of 2020. I feel like not everything got left behind. Even with Joe Biden becoming president there’s still some things… there’s just like… These stimulus checks are happening, but people are still being detained in these immigration attention camps. It’s definitely better, but also at least feels like it’s OK. There’s not a fucking lunatic idiot in the White House, but it’s also just like, let’s see what’s gonna go down.

To talk about the climate of my year, at the end of last year I did end up getting sober and going into recovery and I’m open about talking about it now. Being in recovery, things really got harder for sure. You take away the mechanisms and tools that you have to feel better and then you realize, well what do I have now?

So over the last few months I really have started to cultivate more community and am trying to redefine what intimacy means to myself, intimacy with myself, intimacy with others, and just try to heal some things in my mind that have been… yeah, that I’ve been wrestling with for a while. And spirituality, that has definitely helped. Today is a good day.

Pool Boy will be available to watch for free on the BFI Player from the 17 – 28 March 2021.

The short film was written and directed by Luke Willis, and stars River Gallo, Tim Torre and Justin Chien.