Lio Mehiel's Historic Sundance Win Is A Big Deal, And Here's Why

Sundance Film Festival awards categories have never been the most consistent. While categories like the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and various selection-exclusive awards have been consistently awarded, others pop up every once in a while and then go back into hibernation for a few years. This year's U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Acting is one of these honors, as it has gone through various incarnations since the festival's inception. The last time it was awarded was in 2021, when Clifton Collins Jr. won Best Actor for his role in "Jockey."

However, the category was brought back this year for a U.S. Dramatic lineup that had some serious star power attached. Big names such as Daisy Ridley, Jonathan Majors, Ben Platt, Alden Ehrenreich, and Phoebe Dynevor all seemed like shoo-ins for the award, and they certainly gave it their all. That being said, the actor who received the award wasn't any of these stars, whose films received major coverage throughout the festival. Instead, it was an unknown actor from a little-reviewed competition entry that got the prize.

This year's winning performance came from Lío Mehiel in the film "Mutt," and their win is a multifaceted triumph. Yes, Mehiel is now the first transgender actor to receive the award, and that is a big deal for trans film representation on its own. However, the fact that Mehiel managed to come out on top against some very prominent and buzzworthy contenders indicates just how many movies and performances go under-appreciated during the festival season.

An overlooked performance finally rewarded

When I reviewed "Mutt" for /Film, I wrote about how captivating and natural Lío Mehiel's performance in the movie was. Unfortunately, as the festival continued, it seemed like fewer and fewer people were talking about it online, so I never expected it to be a Sundance award recipient.

When I say it wasn't reviewed or covered often, I mean it. There are only seven reviews of "Mutt" currently on Rotten Tomatoes, mine included, while other titles in the category such as "Fair Play" have around 30 or 40. While it makes sense that the movies with more recognizable faces or directors will get the most festival coverage, it all too often results in the snubbing of smaller independent films screening alongside them. "Mutt" deserved the initial coverage given to its more mainstream competitors, and not entirely because of its subject matter. It's just a good movie with an incredible lead performance, which was thankfully recognized by Sundance themselves.

Expanding critical horizons at film festivals is always going to be difficult, and we writers are always going to miss one thing or another. No one is infallible, and it's unrealistic to expect any one writer or outlet to cover every single film in competition. No one can watch everything, but we can make the effort to put a critical spotlight on movies that don't have big stars or distributors already behind them. That way, more underseen gems like "Mutt" and Lío Mehiel's phenomenal performance can get the recognition they deserve.