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In writer/director Vuk Lungulov-Klotz’s feature debut, “Mutt,” time never slows down for his busy lead character, Feña (Lio Mehiel). The story follows a day in the life of a trans man living in New York City, which in this movie, means coping with prejudice and trying to resolve everyday problems. At a club, Feña reconnects with his old ex-boyfriend, John (Cole Doman), who later asks to see and feel the scars of Feña’s top surgery yet walks away coldly after spending the night together. Next, Feña’s younger sister, Zoe (MiMi Ryder), shows up unannounced after running away from school, but he has other worries on his mind, like how his mom may accuse him of kidnapping his sister (they’re estranged), how the bank won’t cash his check because his current name does not match his deadname, and how his friend who promised to lend their car to pick up Feña’s father (another estranged parent) from the airport has fallen through. It’s one long, difficult day, but Feña muddles through, one step at a time, in front of Lungulov-Klotz’s camera.
Feña’s New York odyssey brings to mind movies like “After Hours” or “Do the Right Thing,” where a character crosses many people in a short span of time, an experience intensified by the city’s density. But the film’s always-on-the-go pacing resembles more of “Tangerine,” Sean Baker’s film about two trans women of color in Los Angeles. “Mutt” is structured so tightly there are few moments where the film finally slows down enough to let the characters exist, for quiet moments that allow for conversation and confession. And fortunately or unfortunately for Feña, the majority of these vulnerable moments are spent with his complicated ex. This is not an easy, laid back day, and that pacing can feels exhausting at times.
Lungulov-Klotz’s story also functions like a double-edged sword, especially when it comes to hostile moments like when Feña is misgendered, insensitively questioned by strangers, ostracized by family, or told to hide his trans identity. It’s heartbreaking and frustrating, and he only has so much energy in a given day to cope with people’s ignorance. I can understand how constant rounds of having to justify his existence can wear on audiences already subjected to those same comments and judgments. For some, seeing that oppression onscreen may feel like seeing their experiences represented, seen, and validated. For others, it’s a painful reminder many times over of how the rest of the cis world treats them. “Mutt” offers little in terms of escapism but sticks closer to an intensified version of realism compressed into a brief runtime.
As Feña, Lio Mehiel conjures up a scrappy screen presence that doesn’t feel too polished or too awkward. He’s wounded yet protective, unafraid to point out his ex’s hypocrisy yet still attracted to him and can’t help but let his eyes meet John’s. We see him reluctantly look after his sister, and work through his network of friends for a helping hand in a time of need. In cinematographer Matthew Pothier’s camera, the frame often closes in on his face, his determined stare, his outrage at bigots, his concern for his sister, and frustration over his bad day. He carries the film on his thin shoulders, beckoning the audience to hurry up and follow him to his next stop.
The most rewarding scenes are the ones shared between Feña and his sister, Zoe. For once, he is not being micro-aggressed, not being measured to the physicality he used to have. Zoe takes him for who he is: a big brother, sometimes reluctant to help, but ready to step up when needed and listen to her problems. And when Zoe does mess up Feña’s plans, like locking him out of a date’s apartment with his keys and wallet inside, Feña doesn’t retaliate the way their mother does. In small conversations, we see them bond over each other’s pain.
“Mutt” sticks close to Feña’s perspective, keeping almost all of the other characters at a distance. The isolation he feels when he cannot rely on friends, family, or former lovers adds to agonizing loneliness in a city teeming with people. Lungulov-Klotz’s feature debut is a complicated film that can pull in a viewer or alienate them. It’s so concentrated in its intensity that it can draw in one’s sympathy or exhaust them. It’s a film with a lot on its mind, a frenetic energy to make it to the end of the day, and a character we root for from start to finish.
Now playing in theaters.
Lio Mehiel as Feña
Cole Doman as John
MiMi Ryder as Zoe
Jasai Chase-Owens as Aidan
Alejandro Goic as Pablo
Jari Jones as Fiona
Ben Groh as Mark
Sarah Herrman as Jenny