This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.
Directed and written by Vuk Lungulov-Klotz in his feature directorial debut, Mutt tackles the day-to-day challenges of transgender life.
Premiering earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, Mutt is about a single day in the life of Fena (Lío Mehiel), a transgender man living in New York. Preparing for his father’s visit from Chile opens floodgates as blasts from the past — his kid sister, Zoe (MiMi Ryder) and his cisgender ex, John (Cole Doman) — interrupt his routine. His attempts to reconnect with them and their attempts to reconcile their past image of him with his present person produce mixed emotions and an uncertain future for these relationships.
Vuk Lungulov-Klotz describes himself as a Chilean-Serbian trans filmmaker, so Mutt may have autobiographical details sprinkled in. The title comes from a passerby overhearing Fena speaking to his father, Pablo (Alejandro Goic), in Spanish and English on the phone. The eavesdropper expresses approval over the “Spanglish” and calls Fena “dawg.” Fena’s gender and language are a mix, a bridge between two worlds, but Fena is exasperated at people offering opinions about his existence as if they get a vote.
“Do you know what being trans is?”
To establish a sense of normalcy before destabilizing it, Mutt could have shown a skosh more of Fena’s life before his encounters with John, Zoe, and Pablo. The film would not have been as focused and tight, but it would have been a helpful contrast of the life he created versus the glimpses of the past left behind.
It’s implied that before the past merges with the present, bartender friend Aidan (Jasai Chase Owens) and roommate Fiona (Jari Jones) were less concerned about Fena, and they seem loving and credible. While they were not “Inspirational Negroes” — as the film implies their full, offscreen lives — it is always a danger when screentime for such characters is so brief, and most of their lines are devoted to being encouraging and deliver advice.
Adversely, Fena’s other roommate, Mark (Ben Groh) implies that Fena is oblivious to the landmines unrelated to his transition. Mark’s reaction to Fena and John suggests that Mark is not as fierce of a friend as Fena believes. Arguing that he does not want to get in the middle, Mark rejects Fena’s suggestion that he should have alerted Fena that John was back in town and equates a heads up with picking a side. This dynamic implies that Fena is an imperfect protagonist, and Mark is wary of getting sucked into Fena’s drama. These complex supporting characters on the borders of Mutt do manage to add three-dimensional texture to the story.
“Don’t get caught up in these momentary feelings.”
Lungulov-Klotz’s first film is a visual, colorful feast with New York as a photogenic backdrop. Mutt never loses momentum, and Lungulov-Klotz’s roots as a cinematographer pays off. The colorful club scenes give way to crisp, clear night shots on the urban streets where John and Fena flirt through a chain-link fence. The shots of them together reflect John’s ambiguous feelings: discomfort over seeing his ex and still feeling attracted. It’s never spelled out, but before Fena transitioned, he may have been a bad partner by cheating.
Also, whenever John is onscreen, Lungulov-Klotz is too tempted and often switches to John’s perspective instead of sticking with his protagonist. Fena is a man, yet Lungulov-Klotz is still shooting him as an objectified woman, which detracts from an otherwise gorgeous, countercultural film.
Along those lines, sometimes characters act as audience surrogates, and Fena’s dialogue functions as informative public service announcements about the basic universal facts of being a trans man: genitalia, top surgery, hormone therapy, fertility, deadname complications, sexual orientation. For those in the know, some of these details disrupt organic, grounded performances and feels like someone is about to scream, “Message!” For those unfamiliar, it will be informative and probably revelatory.
“If you’re waiting to see if this is a phase, it’s not.”
It could be refreshing for a trans person to see these realities on the big screen instead of having to solely bear the indignities of curiosity. The film escapes the pitfalls of becoming an Afterschool Special because the film is not a structured, highly stylized triptych with the first part devoted to John, the second to Zoe, and the third to Fena’s father, Pablo. All four of the major characters interact with each other to some degree irrespective of sharing actual screentime. Note that Fena never refers to Pablo as “our dad” when discussing him with Zoe, so it is safe to conclude that they have different fathers, and it explains why Zoe and Pablo’s sections do not overlap.
A bank scene propels the film forward and does not feel contrived to stir up trouble for Fena. Real New Yorkers from a certain socioeconomic bracket will know the innate nightmare of cashing a check and the eternal dread of not knowing whether they will have access to their money. It shows the practical ways that regardless of the cashier’s personal feelings about transpeople, systemic transphobia is the default behavior and exacerbates an universal problem.
Introducing the complication of name change into the equation catalyzes a domino effect of things going wrong with the rest of Fena’s day. Zoe unintentionally further drains Fena’s financial resources and strains Fena’s other relationships. If horror films do not raise your blood pressure, but you get secondhand stress from films like Uncut Gems (2019), it will not be as wild of a ride, but you may need to meditate afterwards. Long after the problems cease, viewers may still be preoccupied with the possibility of more quotidian disasters.
“I want you to know that I didn’t just disappear for no reason.”
Lungulov-Klotz, a considerate writer, does his best to reassure his audience by casually throwing in germane details, which later are important to moving the plot forward. Fiona references Ken (Gareth Smit), an offscreen friend of Fena, otherwise it would be easy to mistake him for Fena’s new boyfriend because he lets Fena use his apartment. Similarly Lungulov-Klotz inserted dialogue of Fena reassuring Zoe and thus the audience that Jack the Dog (Jack Herman-Stuckey) was going to be fine so the audience would not be preoccupied with worrying about Jack instead of focusing on Fena or using their cell to search “Does the Dog Die?”
Lungulov-Klotz illustrates Fena’s desire not to model their abusive mother’s behavior by relying on Mehiel’s deft performance at separating his frustration over the situation from his reaction to Zoe’s actions. Outside of his interactions with John, Mehiel uses physicality to show Fena’s determination to show growth as a person. Fena becomes a reassuring, adult presence for his sister. When Fena shares space with John and Zoe, a flash of a smile shows a moment of contentment and perhaps signals an unspoken fantasy of a feasible alternative to the ideal of a whole nuclear family.
The bottom line.
When Fena switches gears from spending time with Zoe to hanging out with Pablo, Mutt hits its stride and remains at its strongest during Fena’s interactions with his family. It is the least predictable part of the film and holds the most suspense. Are Pablo’s paternal instincts or gender normative expectations going to win? There is an added complication of Pablo’s absence and Fena’s parents’ divorce, which is subtle and results in turning Fena into a de facto orphan.
Fena questions whether Pablo is using him even though they are acting as if it is a family visit. Pablo’s visit acts as a nice bookend to the beginning of the film, especially since it holds a kernel of hope that with Pablo, some of Fena’s identities, being multicultural and bilingual, will be accepted.
Mutt is now playing in select theaters. Watch the trailer here.
Images courtesy of Strand Releasing. Read more articles by Sarah G. Vincent here.
MUTT - 7.5/10