In the critically acclaimed slice-of-life film “Mutt,” a young transgender man comes face-to-face with a collection of characters from his past, during one relentless day in New York.
In filmmaker Vuk Lungulov-Klotz’s subdued and thoughtful debut feature, Feña, played by Lío Mehiel, encounters his ex-boyfriend, younger sister and estranged father all for the first time since his transition — and all while navigating the streets, subways and daily challenges of life in the bustling city. Amid the chaos, and intimate moments, he’s forced to confront whether it’s other people’s prejudices or his own that are keeping him at a distance.
Mehiel, who uses they/them pronouns, said that as a trans actor, they often play characters whose gender identity is their “primary motivation.” So the role of Feña, Lungulov-Klotz’s semi-autobiographical protagonist, was refreshingly different.
“The fact that it was so much about a person who wants to be loved, who doesn’t feel like they’re necessarily worthy of that love, was exciting to me,” Mehiel told NBC News.
As Mehiel pointed out, their character’s motivations are simultaneously much less and much more complicated than his gender identity, revolving around a central narrative conflict: a misguided mission to pick up his estranged father, who’s flying in from Chile, at the airport in less than 24 hours.
To achieve that seemingly simple goal, Feña has to navigate a series of hurdles, including two failed attempts at borrowing a car, frustrating encounters with strangers and a series of unexpected run-ins — beginning with bumping into his ex John (Cole Doman) at a busy Brooklyn bar in the film's opening sequence, which is then followed by a surprise visit from his sister, Zoe (MiMi Ryder), the following day.
Amid the chaos of the day’s twists and turns — which leave Feña with a head wound, without a phone or wallet, and eventually having to ask John to borrow his beat-up car — what stands out about Mehiel’s performance is how they communicate Feña’s palpable wariness around people, including his intimate acquaintances.
“When Vuk and I were working on the character, it was really identifying the moments where [Feña’s] worldview of ‘everyone is against me’ gets proven right and when it gets proven wrong,” Mehiel said. “The more we could lean into that contrast, the more human and specific the portrayal became.”
One of the scenes that stands out to the star as representative of this approach is when Feña is misgendered and refused help by a young bank teller, even after he’s explained why the name on his paycheck is different than the one on his ID: “There are some moments where [Feña is] optimistic, like in the bank scene. [He starts] out very upbeat, like, ‘She’s a young girl; she’ll get it.’ And then, when she doesn’t, it’s, like, ‘I’m proven right, once again. No one f---ing gets me,’” they said.
That moment is echoed later in the film, when Feña finally makes it to the airport, relieved and hopeful. It only takes a few minutes for his father, who is played by well-known Chilean actor Alejandro Goic, to start questioning and invalidating his child’s transition, pushing Feña at one point to yell, “I’m so sick of people telling me how f---ed up I am, OK?”
But elsewhere, Feña is on far shakier moral ground. When his 14-year-old sister shows up, for example, Feña acts as if she can’t understand her sibling’s transition and that he’s been sparing her the discomfort by not being around. Eventually, however, it emerges that his absence from her life is collateral damage from his attempt to save himself from their abusive mother.
These moments when Feña’s worldview is proven wrong, as Mehiel put it, are the real triumph of Lungulov-Klotz’s technically adventurous film, which highlights how easily difficult relationships and trauma can turn a person into an unreliable narrator in their own life.
“Instead of him being a more traditional antihero, people tend to really connect with him, which makes it so that they feel like they have a trans friend. It makes them feel more connected to the trans experience, because they understand that it’s just human and universal,” Mehiel said.
“Mutt” — which refers to its protagonist’s blended ethnic background, as well as the idea of a transition, or a state of “in-betweenness” as Lungulov-Klotz has described it — draws on the director’s lived experience as a trans man and as the child of immigrants from Chile and Serbia. But it also felt very true to the experiences of its star, who channels their cultural background and trans identity into their art.
When Mehiel first read the character description for Feña — who was characterized as a transmasculine, Chilean Serbian New Yorker with “first-generation American energy” — they immediately felt drawn to the project.
“There were a few identity markers that were kind of uncanny,” Mehiel said. “I’m half Puerto Rican, half Greek, which is kind of weirdly similar to the ethnicity of the character, and Spanish was my first language, but, upon moving to New York when I was 5, I lost some of the language.”
Encountering Feña on the page, they added, “was a really funny, bizarre, beautiful experience, because it did feel like I was the perfect match for this person.”
Despite having grown up in the industry, starting out as a salsa dancer and child actor on Broadway, Mehiel has received a new level of attention for their turn as Feña. When the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Mehiel became the first trans person to win the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award: Acting. And their performance has continued to garner critical praise ahead of the film’s summer release. That, in no small part, is a testament to the sincerity and vulnerability the actor injects into that performance — perhaps most memorably in the laundromat scene, in which Feña, wet from the rain, strips down and John sees his post-top-surgery chest for the first time, igniting passion between the ex-lovers.
“It was my favorite scene to shoot,” said Mehiel, who had top surgery six months before coming across the description of Feña. “I spent a long time before getting gender-affirming care feeling alienated and dissociated from my body, and having a lot of difficult feelings around it. So the fact that I shot this movie in a moment in time where I finally love my body and feel proud of it, it’s just such a gift.”
Although they weren’t hesitant to share this very intimate moment with the audience, they said what was intimidating was being in every scene of the film, playing opposite co-stars who each brought a unique skill set and background to their character.
“I had to remind myself over and over that my job was to believe in the circumstances and try to reveal who I am and how I feel. The less I was doing — the more stripped down, the more connected I was — the more effective the scenes were,” they said. “And that’s ultimately why Feña is a lot softer and more sensitive than he was written on the page. We decided as we were shooting it: Let’s just lean into honesty and truth, because that’s what’s going to work for this. It’s just one day in the life of this person.”
Editor’s note: The interview with Lío Mehiel was conducted before the SAG-AFTRA strike began on July 14.