A scrappy urban tale of misspent young adulthood, Olmo Schnabel’s “Pet Shop Days” evokes the blown-out, stolen-shot 16mm character studies of 1990s independent cinema, as well as the bohemian oeuvre of painter and filmmaker Julian Schnabel, his father. This isn’t attributable merely to the fact that the younger Schnabel includes a scene in which his characters watch Julian’s 1996 “Basquiat,” whose themes and aloof tone — not to mention the events of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s actual life — would seem an obvious inspiration for his first feature. But in a contemporary absence of true New York stories told by filmmakers with seemingly more moxie than money, newcomer Schnabel distinguishes himself with a debut that feels tactile, real and suitably off-putting as he attempts to capture the sensibilities (if not always common sense) of twentysomethings.
Dario Yazbek Bernal (of Netflix’s “House of Flowers”) plays Alejandro, a spoiled, rebellious young adult who has bonded — perhaps unhealthily — with his mother Karla (Maribel Verdú) under the oppressive thumb of his father Castro (Jordi Mollà), a well-established Mexican crime lord. After his halfhearted suicide attempt leads to vehicular manslaughter, Alejandro flees to New York where he meets Jack (Jack Irv), a aimless 20-year-old living with his affluent parents Francis (Willem Dafoe) and Diana (Emmanuelle Seigner) while working in a pet shop. Navigating the city using tenuous contacts from his father’s empire while under a frequent haze of drug use, Alejandro deftly seduces Jack before pulling the lost young man into his criminal mischief.
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In spite of Alejandro’s unpredictability, Jack quickly develops deeper feelings for his companion, exacerbated by the discovery that Diana is receiving medical treatment for a life-threatening illness, and Francis has begun an affair with his sister’s tutor Andy (Camilla Rowe). In the meantime, Castro dispatches his henchman Walker (Louis Cancelmi) to retrieve Alejandro from New York and clean up any of his son’s residual messes. As the risks and red flags continue to accumulate around their shared future, the duo agree on a desperate plan to burglarize a wealthy housewife.
Because “Pet Shop Days” opens on the events that precipitate Alejandro’s flight to New York, it’s easy to make the mistake early on that he is the film’s protagonist. But Jack Irv, who not only plays his onscreen namesake but cowrote the film with Schnabel and Galen Core, subverts expectations by slowly drawing Jack into the foreground for a character study that ends up being even sharper and more resonant than that of his volatile counterpart.
Spoiled by his wealthy parents, Jack functions in absence of obligation. He’s lost in a sea of too many options without a clear focal point, the byproduct of being told he can do anything he wants or puts his mind to, and receiving no discipline to try. The pet store fills Jack’s time but doesn’t stimulate or challenge him, so outside of a tenuous flirtation with Andy, who’s just a few years older than him but much more poised, he’s restless for a life to begin that he can’t even imagine.
Conversely, Alejandro bullies Jack into complicity — and a feverish version of love — giving him unpredictable direction that proves welcome if only because it’s otherwise nonexistent in his life. The young fugitive hates his father almost as much as he does anything in his life that appears to impose rules, including upon his sexuality, which he defines only dismissively. Yet his behavior is all a petulant attempt get back at (and garner the attention of) Castro, as well as to navigate his guilt about the unintentional crime that he committed. The difference that emerges between the two is Jack’s underdeveloped moral compass, which prompts him to push back — if not quite successfully — against Alejandro’s smash-and-grab criminal enterprises.
If their shared delinquency (in the face of mutual wealth and parental overindulgence) makes neither particularly likeable, Bernal and Irv leverage the characters’ circumstances to make us understand, even sympathize with their plight. Schnabel helps by framing Alejandro’s behavior with the ominous infrastructure and resources of his father’s business dealings, but Bernal utilizes the character’s mercurial brattiness to showcase the push-pull influence of growing up under Castro’s tight-fisted control and financial indulgence. Irv on the other hand plays Jack sweeter and a bit dumber than his would-be lover. The young actor also communicates how youthful love forces individuals to ignore red flags — quite possibly some of the same ones both Jack and Alejandro’s parents did when they first got involved.
In an era of social media and wall-to-wall therapy speak in parent-child relationships, Schnabel captures the energy of young adults who are afforded every opportunity to live successfully but have never been adequately prepared: Alejandro and Jack’s lives are initially free of real consequences, and they come together because they’re both looking for something they can’t identify. Meanwhile, cinematographer Hunter Zimny evokes a slightly less sleazy version of the look of Larry Clark’s “Kids,” applying the same voraciousness to each space that Alejandro does to his acquaintances, romantic partners and criminal contacts for a sense of imminent danger. Though not quite the big apple of Abel Ferrara or Martin Scorsese, Schnabel captures a surprisingly gritty, street-level realism (even if the streets mostly exist on New York’s Upper East Side) that has long felt absent from screens.
That said, Schnabel and his writing collaborators leave unresolved a handful of intriguing plot details — some that don’t need to be, but others that might have strengthened the film’s relationships and themes. Unlike the central relationship between Jack and Alejandro, there’s much more that’s good here than bad, and again the director’s approach to the characters and the world they inhabit feels visceral in a way that few films are these days. Consequently, though Olmo’s debut tells the story of two young men wrestling with the oversized influence of their fathers, “Pet Shop Days” possesses a creativity, and a sensitivity, of a filmmaker who already seems capable of occupying the spotlight on his own.
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