For all the talk in the arts about who should be telling / performing which stories, a film like Mutt epitomizes how important it is that those living a certain experience are best positioned to create art about it. While I firmly believe that actors should be able to take on any number of roles that allow them to explore identities and experiences that aren’t their own (with certain exceptions, of course), it’s undeniable that making space in a place like Hollywood for otherwise marginalized voices is a good thing. Written and directed by Vuk Lungulov-Klotz, who addresses his own trans-ness in his director’s statement in the film’s press kit, Mutt covers one very bad day in the life of Feña, a trans man who finds himself crossing paths with several people from his past, all eliciting varying degrees of frustration and heartbreak.
Set in New York, the film features Feña (Lio Mehiel), who is out on the town and enjoying himself a bit too much when his phone rings and he instinctively defaults back to Spanish. It’s his dad (Alejandro Goic) on the line, confirming that Feña will be at the airport to pick him up the next day when he arrives for a visit. He’s concerned he won’t know what Feña (using his deadname, Fernanda) looks like after “all this.” It’s a cringeworthy moment, as it’s meant to be; no one wants their existence to be disregarded so thoughtlessly, particularly by their own parent. But Feña bears it and moves on with his night, having reconnected with an old boyfriend, John (Cole Doman), who he hasn’t seen since his transition.
As the next morning rises and Feña has to figure out how to get a car and get to the airport on time, unexpected obstacles cross his path that both mystify and frustrate. For one, his teenage half-sister, Zoe (MiMi Ryder) shows up in the city, triggering a series of formative events for the girl and bittersweet moments for Feña. Theirs is a delicate relationship, as Feña was ejected from their home when he came out to their mother; now, it seems all he wants to do is protect Zoe and keep her from a similar difficult experience.
Mutt is a well-crafted, perfectly watchable film, a serviceable debut from Lungulov-Klotz who crafts a script with plenty of momentum in its 87 minutes. Mehiel, as well, is fine as a young man still finding his way in his new life (and new body), struggling to figure out how to communicate his needs, fears and desires. Regardless of the identities on screen, there’s plenty to recognize as a universal experience in all Feña is processing. And yet, something about the whole affair plays as amateur hour. The dramatic moments feel a bit too on-the-nose and ultimately lean towards disingenuous. There’s an immaturity to the character’s relationships that smacks of inexperience.
It pains me to not love a film with so much going for it, but the reality remains: any film, by marginalized voices or otherwise, can still be a disappointment. If you’re looking for a quiet, earnest indie, there are worse options than Mutt, but the best thing about the film might just be that it gets Lungulov-Klotz’s awkward debut out of the way and clears the path for more exciting, deeper work ahead.
Mutt opens at Music Box Theatre on Friday, September 22.
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