Berlinale 2023 review: Mutt (Vuk Lungulov-Klotz)

“While this film may not be the first to look at these themes from an intimate and personal place, Mutt may be the force that allows more diverse voices to have the platform, on both sides of the camera.”

The veil that divides the audience from the films that they are seeing becomes increasingly more transparent as we find more personal stories being told. In the case of writer-director Vuk Lungulov-Klotz, his feature-length directorial debut Mutt offered the opportunity to examine issues surrounding his own identity, both as a transgender man and someone of immigrant descent, while still maintaining enough distance to prevent the film from being entirely autobiographical. The film focuses on the trials and tribulations of a young trans man making his way through the bustling streets of New York City over the course of roughly 24 hours, facing several impediments to what was supposed to be an ordinary day, whether major obstacles (such as his younger sister seemingly running away from home and seeking solace with their older sibling) or the more troublesome hurdles that everyone tends to face on occasion. A very simple film that embodies both the unimpeachable virtue of a story well told, and the deeply compelling results that come about when speaking from a place of sincerity and honesty, Mutt is a revelation, a fascinating and often quite moving depiction of the complications one can face when deviating from the preordained status quo, and the inherent resilience present within those communities to overcome these challenges. All of this is beautifully documented in Lungulov-Klotz’s staggering portrait of a young man navigating the complex world of redefining yourself to reflect your inner state, and the moments of both joy and melancholy that come with such drastic but profound changes.

The concept of change is one of the more powerful themes that run through this film, with Mutt focusing on the experiences of someone who has decided to undertake the journey of expressing a different gender identity, albeit still very early in the transition process. This is a pivotal concept that grounds the film, since it looks at an ambiguous space in the process of gender transition, being neither about the act of coming out in the first place, nor reaching the state of euphoria that comes when they finally start to feel comfortable. This film makes the crucial statement that transitioning is not a linear path – it is a journey defined by many challenges, which can be disheartening for those who have only recently started this voyage of self-realization. Identity has always been a vital aspect of artistic expression, and Mutt offers a very strong depiction of a single individual’s attempts to navigate the world that surrounds them, negotiating their place within it, while seeking out both the acceptance of others, as well as the self-validation that is just as important in the process. The director presents this through a vibrant account of one day in the life of an ordinary individual, someone who has always stood within the margins based on ethnicity, many of those same insecurities being depicted in his continual movement towards realizing his gender, both socially and physically. All while making it clear to those closest to him that he is no longer “Fernanda”, but now “Feña” (both in body and spirit), which highlights one of the more complex aspects of gender transition. This often depends on helping others adapt to the change, which is crucial in a culture where true acceptance requires some act of validation, especially from those in our closest circles.

Mutt tells a story not only through words, but also through several hauntingly beautiful images that portray the journey that those undergoing gender transition have to face. Some of the most profound moments throughout this film occur in the quieter scenes, where we can see the director’s intentions most clearly, especially in how he examines the main character’s journey, both physically and psychologically, the oscillation between the two defining the film and adding layers to an already complex character study about the obstacles that come with manifesting a particular identity. This primarily occurs through the film’s artful but provocative use of a human body undergoing change as a source of reflection for the deeper themes. We see the protagonist’s body slowly adapting to these new physical changes – the scars from his top surgery are still fresh, and characters that had known him before his transition find their gaze lingering on those aspects that used to represent his femininity, but have now been reconstructed to convey his efforts to appear as masculine, which is in itself a journey. Mutt moves with an incredible fluidity, weaving through the daily life of this character as he continuously makes an effort to perform his identity as authentically as possible – and whether this involves actively having to correct people who misgender him, or simply taking on physical characteristics through his clothing, movements and speech that reflect his growing experience as a man, we find the film demonstrating a raw and unflinching portrait of a young trans man on his continuing journey towards manifesting his perceived identity.

At the heart of this film, we find a performance that anchors its many themes and allows it to flourish into such a remarkably complex, powerful character study. Casting the right actor to play the role of Feña was extremely important. It was logical that the part would be given to someone non-binary or trans, in order to avoid the previous tendency to cast cisgender actors, who often viewed these roles as an opportunity to expand on their repertoire, rather than approaching them with the necessary respect and nuance that comes from the lived experience of being part of a marginalized group. Lío Mehiel is an actor whose career has been slowly but steadily ascending, with their work reflecting not only an incredible set of talents, but an awareness of identity and the complexities that come with conversations surrounding gender. As a non-binary performer, they brought a depth and nuance to this role, and to their portrayal of the main character, who finds himself constantly having to not only explain his identity, but justify his identity, which only serves to complicate his own journey of self-discovery. Mehiel is a revelation – their ability to balance both humour and pathos with equal aptitude allows this performance to become even more complex the further we venture into the protagonist’s mind. This may be a relatively small film, but Mehiel’s performance is astonishing in its detail, complexity and authenticity, to the point where it would not be surprising if this was a breakthrough that not only thrusts Mehiel into the spotlight but gives many other transgender and non-binary people the seat at the table they so deeply deserve.

While this film may not be the first to look at these themes from an intimate and personal place, Mutt may be the force that allows more diverse voices to have the platform, on both sides of the camera. It is long overdue, especially since the conversations around gender and identity that are embedded in this film are not new – they have existed for far longer than many would expect, and the last few decades have only seen further efforts to start assimilating these stories and concepts into the popular consciousness, since this is the only way to consolidate them into society, in the form of a quiet but resilient revolution that gives those within these communities the chance to tell their own stories, rather than having them told by others. Mutt is a tactful and compelling examination of gender and how it operates within our society, and often defines it, investigating the concept of redefining identity through looking at the routine of one individual, particularly the situations they face that would be entirely foreign to those who have not experienced these same challenges. This is a film that has a solid story at its heart, but its most impactful moments come in the smaller sequences, such as those in which Feña has to navigate misunderstandings and microaggressions. It is told with stark honesty and gentle humour, and it makes a profound impact in all the areas that matter the most – and while it may only be one small entry into what is clearly a changing narrative landscape in which these stories will continue to be told, it makes a profound impression through its forthright scrupulousness and undying compassion, not only for the main character, but everyone that he represents, which is the greatest achievement of this valuable, compelling human drama.

(c) Image copyright: Quiltro LLC

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