Sunday, May 26, 2024

‘Mutt’ Celebrates Transness and New York City

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Chaos reigns in Vuk Lungulov-Klotz’s debut Mutt, about the day of a young Chilean-American trans man, Fena (Lio Mehiel). Hence the self-deprecating title, Mutt. Recently transitioned but not so recent; he’s had top surgery, he finds himself thrown into having to deal with the remnants of his old life.

Lungulov-Klotz, a trans man himself, thrusts us into a day in Fena’s life as he reconnects with old flames and family members, all while trying to keep his head above water. One of the things I admired about Mutt is how Lungulov-Klotz, who also wrote the script, never tries to make Fena’s day too chaotic. He keeps it rooted in an everyday reality, hectic but manageable.

Fena (Lio Mehiel) and John (Cole Doman) nervously flirt in a laundromat.

He’s not interested in creating a sweaty-palm, anxiety-ridden melodrama. Instead, he aims to give us a typical day in Fena’s life with a few hitches. He and cinematographer Matthew Pothier keep us washed in Fena’s headspace as we witness his attempts at connection.

Pothier’s camera acts like a window into Fena’s world, allowing us insight into his emotional state or keeping us at a distance as observers of the drama unfolding. Brimming with confidence, Pothier’s camerawork emboldens the emotional underpinning of Fena’s psychological state. The opening shot is a prime example as Pothier’s camera sits back, Fena, between his friends at a club. The way Lungulov-Klotz and Pothier compose the frames allows Mehiel to give a full-body performance and draws us into his headspace.

Far from being tragedy porn, Mutt shows us the small victories and losses of Mehiel’s Fena as he tries to get through the day. Granted, his day is more packed than usual. His estranged father, Pablo (Alejandro Goic), flying in from Chile, and his fourteen-year-old sister, Zoe (Mimi Ryder), come to him because she’s having her first period and doesn’t want to deal with their emotionally abusive mother. Fena is the rare big brother qualified to deal with the situation. If all of that wasn’t enough, he bumped into his ex-boyfriend John (Cole Doman) from before he transitioned at a club, and the sparks are still there, but so is the emotional baggage.

Through it all, Lungulov-Klotz and Potheir show how tiny moments can wear a person down. A banker won’t cash his check because Fena’s boss used his deadname. His father calls him by his dead name on the phone as they discuss picking him up from the airport. John’s cousin asks Fena about his genitals. The pharmacist gives him grief about wanting Plan B- microaggression after microaggression. 

But to Lungulov-Klotz’s credit, his script never feels like it’s building to some dramatic payoff. Instead, he uses these moments to show how these little moments act as a needle picking at an open wound. Fena is anxious about meeting his father for the first time since his transition; everything else merely frays his nerves.

Mutt hits on many points that films about transness frequently bring up. This includes the requisite monologue where Fena blows up at her father about how he wishes people would stop saying he “chose” this. But Lungulov-Klotz finds little ways to breathe new life into these situations. It’s the little brush strokes, such as Fena’s father, Pablo, who is not as supportive as he could be but is also trying in a way that never feels patronizing. However, I had to smile at Pablo’s fear for Fena because “life as a man is more complicated than a woman.” His paternalistic sexism is the spark that causes Fena’s outburst.

But Goic’s Pablo tenderly cares for Fena and slowly begins to understand his son’s pain and happiness. It’s a nuanced performance that Lungulov-Klotz captures from Goic, who gradually begins to accept Fena wholly until he finally threatens to beat up whoever made him cry.

For me, however, what makes Mutt so spectacular, aside from Potheir’s camera placement, is Mehiel as Fena. You can never catch them acting. They embody Fena inside and out without an ounce of artifice. It is a smooth performance that isn’t showy because it’s so rooted in the present that it doesn’t allow for affectations or artificiality. Mehiel is crucial to everything that works so well in Mutt.

Fena (Mehiel) and his little sister Zoe (Mimi Ryder) wait for the train.

Especially the scene in the laundromat. Fena and John rush in to escape the rain and find themselves intoxicated, both literally and figuratively. Old desires rekindled, Fena shyly takes off his top, afraid to show John his scars. Lungulov-Klotz and Pothier capture this moment with a red-hot immediacy and sensual intensity. John and Fena claw at each other as their past and present collide, finding solace in each other and the moment.

Lungulov-Klotz cuts to the following day. Awkwardness and sobriety rear their ruffled heads. Fena mentions he needs to get some Plan B, and John offers to pay half—the connection from the night before evaporating. The promise of a new relationship fades before Fena’s eyes.

If Mehiel’s Fena were the only good performance, Mutt would still be worth watching. But every actor turns in a lived-in, natural performance. The result is so uniform that it suggests that Lungulov-Klotz has an uncanny talent for creating a space for his actors to play around and find the character. The caliber of acting alone raises Mutt to another level. 

The story of Mutt can be found in numerous student films; it’s the polished and intensely heartfelt way Lungulov-Klotz conveys the emotions and richness of the surroundings that make it stand out. His New York City is not the landmark tourist trap buffet but an ode to the side streets, clubs, and bodegas scattered across what screenwriter Malvin Wald affectionately called the naked city.

Lungulov-Klotz’s script shoves obstacles in Fena’s way, but they are never so large that they can’t be overcome. It all feels manageable, whether being locked out or having a friend back out of helping. And on any other day, maybe Fena’s day wouldn’t be so hectic, but sometimes you want a day to go right, and all it does is go left. 

Images courtesy of Strand Releasing

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