Writer-director Vuk Lungulov-Klotz—an alum of Ryan Murphy’s HALF Initiative, who mentored under Janet Mock on Pose—makes an impressive feature debut with Mutt, executive produced by Silas Howard, which just received its world premiere in the US Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. The action opens in a bustling New York club, as a close group of hip twentysomething friends—Aidan (Jasai Chase Owens), Mark (Ben Groh), Fiona (a magnetic Jari Jones), and Feña (Lío Mehiel)—manage to hold a conversation over the throbbing music. Cinematographer Matthew Pothier (delivering more stunning, intimate work following last year’s Sundance short Starfuckers by Antonio Marziale) draws our eye to a distracted Feña who has just received a call from his father Pablo (veteran Chilean actor Alejandro Goic) about his impending arrival from Chile.
Fresh off the call with his dad, an agitated Feña spots his ex-boyfriend John, played by Cole Doman (Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party, Starfuckers), entering the club and seeks him out at the bar. He’s moved back to the city to look after his mother and is there with his cousin Jenny (Sarah Herrman), who’s excited to be out of New Jersey for the night to celebrate her 22nd birthday and happy to share her cocaine with the pair. Without intending to be cruel, Jenny bluntly asks Feña intrusive questions about him being trans, just the first of several instances in the film which give us a flavour of the microagressions that he has to contend with as he navigates day-to-day life.
Leaving the club together, John and Feña are caught in a sudden rain storm and find themselves sheltering in an empty 24-hour laundromat. They haven’t seen each other since Feña’s transition and things clearly didn’t end well. Despite their unresolved issues, the chemistry hasn’t gone away and the history between them is palpable as they attempt to reconnect with one another, leading to a beautifully delicate, tactile, and passionate scene as they reencounter each other’s bodies. Editor Adam Dicterow’s sensitive, long takes allow this to unfold in an absorbingly unforced way. Waking up together the next morning, it doesn’t take long for the tension to rise as John awkwardly leaves as quickly as he can.
Next to reenter Feña’s life is his 14-year-old sister Zoe (an excellent MiMi Ryder). Estranged from his abusive mother, Feña hasn’t seen his sister for over a year. Despite Feña’s protective defensiveness, the Gen-Zer has no issue with her sibling’s gender identity, saying “who cares!” She tells Feña that she has a trans friend and knows about top surgery, and is totally unfazed when Feña tells her that he’s had the procedure. Instead, she’s more preoccupied with having her first period and needs her sibling’s support and guidance to cope with it. His absence in her life has clearly been deeply felt. Similarly, Pablo wants to be a part of his child’s life. He might not always say the right thing—continually misgendering and dead-naming Feña and expressing his concern about him being a man with all the expectations that are attached to that in Latinx culture—but we can see that his concerns come from a place of love, and he’s trying his best to connect.
Although we only see brief glimpses of it, we get the sense that Feña has created a city life that he’s content with and feels safe in, which many LGBTQ+ folks will be able to identify with, surrounding himself with chosen family who he’s fully accepted by, like his roommate Fiona. When it comes to his sister and father, he’s quick to push both of them away, preempting their responses. Although the dialogue isn’t as subtle as it might be at times, veering more towards text than subtext, one of the strengths of Mutt, is Lungulov-Klotz’s ability to craft his central characters with light and shade and, crucially, to allow us to see both perspectives in the protagonist’s relationships. As the camera lingers on John, Pablo, and Zoe we empathize with them, without that taking anything away from our connection to Feña. It goes deeper than who’s right and wrong, and it’s not all about Feña being trans, although he might think it is. As John bluntly tells Feña at one point, “People don’t hate you coz you’re trans, they hate you coz you’re a fucking asshole”. He might be taking things too far with his intentionally hurtful words, but Feña is undoubtedly a flawed, often self-absorbed character who is still discovering himself as an adult, making mistakes a long the way, as us humans tend to do.
Lungulov-Klotz is clearly a skilled director of actors, with every member of cast, no matter how small the role, offering beautifully natural work. At the centre of it all, Lío Mehiel (who gave a powerful performance on stage in Sam Max’s Coop in early 2020) entrances here, delivering a brooding, captivating tour-de-force as Feña. I’ve long been an admirer of Cole Doman’s work, with his expressive eyes and adorable screen presence, and it’s great to see him make the most of this complex character, bringing a vulnerability tinged with brittle bitterness to John, who has been burnt before and understandably has his guard is up around Feña. Alejandro Goic is a standout too, bringing real emotional depth to Pablo, especially in moments of stillness, alone in Feña’s bedroom.
The filmmaker isn’t afraid of silence, and never relies on his buoyant soundtrack—featuring tracks by the likes of Godford and Half Lotus—using the gorgeously warm and affecting electronic score by James William Blades and Taul Katz sparingly. Mutt’s square aspect ratio, as with Xavier Dolan’s Mommy, suits this character-driven, emotionally-charged piece, and shows off Pothier’s beautifully composed but never overwrought shots. Despite the film’s fairly leisurely pace, it is continually fueled by a propulsive energy with a close to realtime intensity, as the action unfolds over around 24 hours. It’s a timeframe that gives us an intriguing insight into the life of this compelling, nuanced character. Towards the end, Feña translates a track about heartbreak that him and John are listening to, and Mutt itself has that moving, ultimately hopeful, bittersweet ache of a good breakup song, and it’s one I know I’ll be returning to.
By James Kleinmann
Mutt received its world premiere in the US Dramatic Competition section at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. There will be subsequent in-person public screenings on Tuesday, January 24th, Wednesday, January 25th, Thursday, January 26th, and Friday, January 27th. The film also screens on demand via the festival’s online portal. Head to the official Sundance website for more details and to purchase tickets.