‘Mutt’ review: Trauma overshadows a day in the life of a trans man

Lio Mehiel in "Mutt."
Lio Mehiel in “Mutt.”
Sundance Institute and Strand Releasing

Trans director Vuk Lungulov-Klotz’s “Mutt” splits very evenly into a three-act narrative. It compresses years of experience and their repercussions into one 24-hour period. At its start, Feña (Lio Mehiel) receives a call from Pablo (Alejandro Goic), his Chilean father, whose flight arrives in New Jersey the following evening. The film is divided into sections corresponding to a person in Feña’s life: his ex-boyfriend John (Cole Doman), his sister (Mimi Ryder), and Pablo.

The gaps hint at a backstory: for instance, Feña’s interaction with his sister suggest abuse committed by their mother. The beats of Lungolov-Klotz’s script are obvious, with each section’s emotional high points laid out too neatly. After experiencing a day’s worth of microaggressions — not all of which are related to being trans — the film’s final words promise acceptance at last. Given the premise, the structure leads exactly where one would expect.

After speaking with his father, Feña goes to a nightclub with John, who hasn’t seen himself since before his transition. He hooks up with John, having sex that leads him to head to the pharmacy to buy a Plan B pill. The next morning, he’s greeted by the arrival of his teenage sister (Mimi Ryder). Driven out by their conservative mother, she needs a place to stay. He rushes to make it to the airport to pick up Pablo.

New York locations — the street outside a Bushwick deli, a laundromat open improbably late, even the subway — are well-used. Shooting in a 1.33 aspect ratio, cinematographer Matthew Pothier captures the city’s atmosphere, even in relatively empty shots. The screen’s narrowness contributes to the tension of interior scenes.

“Mutt” suffers from building its story around a barrage of negative experiences, overt and subtle, that Feña goes through. It avoids the very worst extremes of transphobia, but it’s still a narrative built entirely around trauma. To choose one example, a bank teller misgenders Feña and refuses to deposit his check because it’s made out to his deadname. The stress caused by bigotry builds upon itself, leading to painful incidents that aren’t directly caused by it. In one, Feña trips when trying to jump a subway turnstile and cuts himself on it.

By defining Feña through his reaction to such a hostile world, “Mutt” misses out on the more subtle aspects of his life. His relationship with John isn’t as far in the past as either thinks. If dating Feña didn’t mean that John would have to think of himself as gay, they would likely still be a couple. Their conversations are dramatic but fairly believable. Yet even here, the relationship could use some fleshing out. When John says that people hate Feña for being a jerk rather than a trans man, Feña’s behavior suggests some truth to this, yet it seems like a response to constantly being negated.

Feña’s journey parallels that of the film. Movies made about trans people by cis directors very often include a scene in which their body’s differences are shown off in a mirror. Feña comments on this fascination in a scene in a laundry with John. He refuses to show his bare chest to John, who expresses a voyeuristic desire to see it. Taking off his shirt in front of a window, his chest becomes visible in the reflection anyway. John’s girlfriend asks about Feña’s body, wanting to know whether he has a penis.

“Mutt” gets right to the point about the invasiveness and insensitivity of these questions about trans bodies, but it often comes across a Trans 101 lecture intended for cis viewers, as when Feña describes the months of pain following his mastectomy. All the same, few narrative films have called out how maddening those preoccupations are, and “Mutt” speaks about them from a position that obviously reflects the director’s own frustration. If the film boils Feña’s past down a bit too far to make it linger in the present, its best moments lay out the start of a more promising future for a character who’s just begun to live as a man.

“Mutt” | Directed by Vuk Lungulov-Klotz | Strand Releasing | In English and Spanish with English subtitles | Opens Aug. 18th at Film Forum