A movie about an awkward phase that can itself seem trapped in an awkward phase, the indie drama “Mutt” presents a young trans man’s busy, fraught 24 hours in New York as a threshold of understanding between past and future, between the memories that sting and the feelings worth nurturing for happier days.
Feña, played with engaging urban intensity by Lio Mehiel, has a trio of ghosts to reconcile with in transgender writer-director Vuk Lungulov-Klotz’s feature debut, which occasionally betrays the stilted earnestness of an extra-mindful storyteller. But it’s also squarely openhearted in depicting what the freshly transitioned must navigate just to be (and explain) themselves, when all anyone else can seem to latch on to is the narrative of change they experience.
Movies, of course, are designed to compress characters’ hopes and pressures into a compact time frame, but still, Feña deals with a lot in one day: an ex who rekindles feelings, a sister running away from home and a dad not seen in years, flying in from Chile, not to mention transportation woes and money problems (like a paycheck rendered uncashable because it bears a dead name). When the script tosses in a bleeding bump on Feña’s head, it feels like overkill. That it happens jumping the subway turnstile, however, with the only available bandage a sanitary pad, lends the scene a knowing metaphor-meets-irony wittiness about its very themes that’s ultimately worth smiling about, as Feña appealingly does in the moment, too.
At first, when the movie opens, Feña is enjoying a night with friends at his favorite bar, save a brief phone exchange with his father that suggests the possible familial stress that awaits his arrival the next day. Then a straight high school ex-boyfriend named John (Cole Doman) shows up at the bar — like Feña’s dad, someone else he hasn’t seen since transitioning — and the tension is right there, thick with what’s resented and unresolved. But also, as the night wears on, softened by rain, alcohol and a soul-baring moment in a laundromat, we see what’s clearly still alive and explorable between them.
The next day, the appearance of Feña’s 14-year-old sister Zoe (MiMi Ryder), fleeing their abusive mother, gives him a chance to forge a sibling bond outside the home environment that forced Feña to bolt. But these scenes are dramatically the thinnest, feeling more like expositional patchwork than realistic complications in the here and now.
Lungulov-Klotz saves the most pointed and cathartic confrontations for last, after Feña’s dad, Pablo (a serenely powerful Alejandro Goic), shows up, and John reenters the picture. The weight of a long day’s irritations and misunderstandings lead to raw nerves, harsh words and tears, but also one believably heartfelt rapprochement. It’s also when Matthew Pothier’s textured, box-frame cinematography is at its most Hopper-esque in conveying big-city loneliness and the spaces between dark and light that trans people know all too well.
“Mutt,” like the title suggests, can be a ramshackle variety pack of nimble strengths and overthought touches. At its most singular, it works when you think it might not, and vice versa. Dialogue that might feel on-the-nose elsewhere rings necessary here, a case of assertive identity girding universal emotions; on the other hand, the confident visual style sometimes comes off as distancing, not intimate.
Then again, it’s not uncommon that the most intriguing first films are the ones that stumble on their way to purposefulness, and “Mutt” easily meets that standard, presenting us with a vivid character we unabashedly root for as the day’s challenges try to pierce a newly armored soul. In a way, it makes the warmest takeaway our looking forward to what Lungulov-Klotz does next with his sturdy voice and big heart, and what other trans filmmakers have in store for us.
Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes
Playing: Opens Aug 25, Landmark Theaters Sunset, West Hollywood; Laemmle Noho 7, North Hollywood