The more times I watch Mutt, the more I’m convinced that it is one of the best short film scripts I’ve ever encountered. Even as I first formulated this impression however I remember finding it odd—the dialogue in the film isn’t especially sparkling, nor is the plot overly intricate. There are no clever twists, and the themes, while deeply human and relatable, aren’t rendered in exquisite poetics. But, what writer/director Erin Sanger does in Mutt is tackle a complex issue with a problem-solvers bent, side-stepping the pitfalls of the “addiction” genre in order to establish an incredibly rich portrait of its characters and dynamics within the limitations of the short film format. Mutt’s structure and soft, indirect touch, the way it suggests connections and traumas, resentments and disappointments throughout a family, without being explicit in its exposition, is nothing short of a magic trick.
Michael (Corey Cott) is a young man whom is visited by his sister Lindsey (Taylor Hess) one morning. He is chugging OJ and wearing dark shades. He looks like shit, and Lindsey is very adamant about wanting him to drive with her to her apartment. He doesn’t know it, but his father Tom (Noel Wilson) is waiting outside. He agrees to leave, but first he insists on taking his new dog, “Floyd”, with them. His family has an intervention planned for him. It does not go to plan though, and the way the plan breaks apart is incredibly instructive in understanding what has happened to this family in the first place.
If we were to update our cheeky, but useful, article 15 Things Wrong With Your Short Film, I would be tempted to add as a warning to aspiring and developing filmmakers to avoid addiction dramas. They are common, and usually bad. I partially blame Requiem for a Dream as it’s become one of those late-night college dorm-room staples, but more generally I think the allure of the addiction drama is potent for younger people. At a moment in their lives where expectation for the future is so high, but the pressure is as well, and the anxiety of “will my life work out like I hope?” is at its peak, the specter of self-destruction is simultaneously potent, but also seductive.
However addiction dramas fail if you try to tackle them head-on. They become narcissistic and dour, reveling in degradation without the benefit of insight or revelation. Like some sort of physics experiment in which you can’t observe the thing in and of itself, these stories are best told sideways, examining the ripples that emanate out from the disease. This is especially true in the short format where you don’t have the luxury of time to document the gradual deterioration of your subject.
That’s what’s so clever and special about Mutt. Sanger knew she wanted to tackle addiction, but keenly understood these restrictions. She decides to center the story on a single day, utilizing the framework of an intervention. She also understood that she did not want this to be just Michael’s story. Addiction is a disease that is felt outside simply the experience of its sufferer. Sanger wanted to capture this truth, and in a remarkably effortless way she does something incredibly complicated—in 13min, she shifts the film’s protagonist to each individual character, beginning with Lindsey, through to Michael, and then finally the father. The titular “mutt” serves as a dramatic macguffin to instigate the action, and through this inciting element the tensions and hurts of the familial interrelations are laid bare. Even more “Floyd” becomes a metaphor—for love, for responsibility—one that mirrors and contrasts the central relationships of the film.
In a longer review I would highlight exquisite details—the performances are uniformly excellent, and the nuance of the character interactions are deeply revealing. The way the father callously strips Michael’s self-justifications away, or the manner that he holds money over his head as a cudgel are incredibly rendered. The cinematography from Brandon Roots, an S/W featured director in his own right, is lovely.
But I come back to Sanger. There is a deep and abiding humanism to her script and direction that is wonderful to behold. Featured on the site for both the narrative short Bombshell, and the documentary short The Next Part, she makes me want to dig deeper into directors that fluidly navigate both forms. Does a facility in documentary provide some deeper insight into human relations that can be transposed to narrative filmmaking? We’ll have future opportunity to examine that question I’m sure as Sanger seems poised for a breakout, with a full plate of projects in the works. She is currently in post on an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary which she co-directs with the actress portraying Lindsey, Taylor Hess, while she simultaneously is shooting her feature documentary debut currently titled The Coma Club. Additionally she is developing her narrative feature debut. If this is the last short we get for a while from Sanger, she leaves us with a masterpiece, and after an accomplished track record in shorts the time does feel right for Sanger to flex her storytelling muscles in a longer format.