‘Mutt’ Review: Trans Man’s Encounters With Loved Ones Lead Him to Mending Relationships

Sundance 2023: The appearances of an ex, his half-sister and his father lead a man to resolve his past so he can build his future

Matthew Pothier/Sundance Institute

Chronicling three encounters over the course of 24 hours, “Mutt” follows Feña (Lío Mehiel, “WeCrashed”), a transgender man finally comfortable in his own skin but still grappling with how his choice to live authentically recalibrated, for better or worse, his closest relationships.

Chilean-Serbian writer-director Vuk Lungulov-Klotz, who himself is trans, introduces Feña (the gender-neutral name he’s chosen) during a night out at a club where he spots John (Cole Doman, “Gossip Girl”), his straight ex-boyfriend from before he transitioned. The two haven’t seen each other in over year. Once the initial awkwardness dissipates, the embers of their past romance are rekindled under the effects of alcohol and pent-up desire.   

Presented in a boxy aspect ratio, the compositions that cinematographer Matthew Pothier dons on “Mutt” sway between those that convey a living-in-the-moment exuberance to get lost in (such as a brief slow-motion sequence in the rain) and other static, peculiarly angled shots that hold the conversations Feña has with his estranged loved ones.

Without warning, Feña’s 14-year-old half-sister Zoe (MiMi Ryder) shows up at his job the following morning, with a combative attitude at first. Feña left their household when their mother vilified his transition, and now the siblings rarely see one another.

Later, when his original plan falls through, Feña struggles to borrow a car to pick up his Chilean father, Pablo (Alejandro Goic), from the airport. One of Chile’s most prominent actors, recently seen in the country’s Oscar entry “Blanquita,” Goic lends the film a loving turn. His presence, and Feña’s sporadic dialogue in Chilean Spanish, are enough to organically ground the Latine background of the character as just another part of him.

Charged with unresolved conflict, the trio of meetings assemble a modern-day “A Christmas Carol” in that the visitors encourage Feña to reconsider his partial responsibility in the erosion of these foundational bonds. Just as his experience contains a multitude of nuances, those of the people in his life do as well, which he had failed to recognize.

As the day carries on, some of the setbacks that overwhelm Feña begin to feel slightly contrived. Each of the unfortunate occurrences that come at him seem written to discuss, unsubtly, an aspect of his trans reality: Zoe getting her first period on this very day gives Feña a chance to talk about taking testosterone; after an accident leaves an open gash on his face, others comment on how tough he looks now; a cocaine-fueled club exchange confronts Feña with the general population’s ignorance and lack of tact towards trans people.

The schematic quality to those scenes can be attributed to the fact that the story covers only a single day in this character’s universe, and to Lungulov-Klotz’s intent to touch on a variety of topics within that narrative time frame. Still, Mehiel traverses all of Feña’s moods and confrontations with a kind of disarming sincerity that convinces us his missteps lack malice but are instead a response to living in a state of permanent defensiveness. He has to justify his right to be who he is every day to everybody except for his queer roommates.

Lungulov-Klotz avoids reducing Feña to a victim of a society still not fully accepting of his true identity, however. Although “Mutt” does include instances where he is misgendered and dead-named, the focus is on creating a portrait of a flawed person who is also trans.

“Everything informs everything,” Feña tells John during an argument about whether they could work out together now. He chalks up their past issues to the unhappiness that walking in the wrong body caused him and promises that now it could be different. But John refutes that, arguing that being trans isn’t the sole source of Feña’s problems. The truth of the matter lies somewhere in between.

Throughout Feña’s day, John stands as the only constant, with repeated appearances. The intimacy that remains between them sizzles early on in a laundromat sequence, where John’s curiosity for Feña’s new appearance post–top surgery brings them back together sexually. A notable Doman matches Mehiel’s tonal variations, both during a lighthearted drive with Zoe and in the more affecting, late-night quarrels.

But there’s only so much one can glean from what’s unsaid in “Mutt,” whether about the rocky history that Feña and John shared or about Feña’s interests and plans for the future, which go unmentioned. Trapped in between what was and what he thinks could be, Feña can’t move forward. Even with his father and sister on his side, he refuses to accept that perhaps John is the one piece from his past he cannot bring with him into his new world.

Despite its plot contrivances, the dramatic arc of “Mutt” delivers a changed individual on the other side of its many tribulations. The Feña we meet the first night is not the same one who goes to bed the next. Soaked in rain and painful realizations, maybe now he can finally outgrow his old self from the inside out.

“Mutt” makes its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.