THE STORY – In an act of desperation, impulsive black sheep Alejandro flees his home in Mexico. On the run from his unforgiving father, Alejandro finds himself in New York City where he meets Jack, a college age pet store employee with similar parental baggage. Together the two enter a whirlwind romance sending them down the rabbit hole of drugs and depravity in Manhattan’s underworld. When Alejandro’s past threatens to catch up with him, Jack is forced to choose between his family and a life on the run.
THE CAST – Jack Irv, Dario Yazbek, Willem Dafoe, Emmanuelle Seigner, Camille Rowe & Peter Sarsgaard
THE TEAM – Olmo Schnabel (Director/Writer), Galen Core & Jack Irv (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 110 Minutes
A story will always be more fascinating when the subject at the center doesn’t fit neatly into predetermined protagonist characteristics. It is not a particularly moving experience if motivations are all clearly defined and there is no dilemma regarding morality. It is how one comes to have a greater appreciation for the nuanced and complicated set of decisions that make up a character. Even if vile on the surface, what compels them towards their goals can be an inherently fascinating exploration. Those at the center of “Pet Shop Days” are not meant to be seen as clearly defined heroes. In fact, their actions would far more likely be viewed as villains in a world that rejects such overly hedonistic intentions. As such, this presentation is imperfect but captures a tone that still makes it somewhat of an engaging venture.
The film starts in Mexico, where Alejandro (Dario Yazbek Bernal) is openly feuding with his father during a party the affluent family is hosting. His attempt to leave is met with horrible tragedy when he accidentally strikes his mother with the car. Devastated and panicked, he flees and soon finds himself in New York City. He is on a manic rampage filled with ego and pure passion, and he eventually crosses paths with Jack (Jack Irv), a low-level employee at a local pet shop. The two form an instant bond, one driven by intellectual and physical interests in each other. Their romance leads them to an underworld of drugs and depravity while trying to escape the familial pressures crushing them. It’s only a matter of time before such dire consequences catch up to them.
Olmo Schnabel tackles this material with a vibrancy that manages to be consistently compelling. The landscapes come to life with the colorful cinematography, giving texture to this dark and gritty environment. It’s evocative of the work from the Safdie brothers, particularly “Good Time,” except with an overtly queer coating to it. There’s a shared sensibility in this commentary of individuals experiencing the intoxicating turmoil of a Manhattan underbelly full of debauchery. Schnabel keeps the energy at a high pace, which sometimes produces a shaggy quality to the filmmaking. At the same time, the execution matches the frenzied tone and draws one into this oddly appealing dynamic. The results do show signs of a debut feature, but there’s an undeniable vitality that makes it continuously captivating.
The story itself is where interest starts to wane. These characters don’t have to strive for likeability, but the catalyst that drives every desire feels ill-conceived. So many decisions are made impulsively with exceptional escalation, and while this is true to the character, it doesn’t allow for a great deal of complexity to their plights. Every character acts with impetuous resolve that makes the narrative feel rushed. The storytelling never seems to reach beneath the surface to give a more profound outlook of the thematic weight. It’s an alluring realm on display, but one that also sits at arm’s length and can only be admired from a distance.
Both Beranl and Irv have a good amount of screen presence, but the former is absolutely the more engrossing force. He brings forth a wild and hectic spirit that is dangerously unpredictable in every scene. However, that propels him forward with reckless abandon, and it’s an abrasive yet charismatic personality. Bernal captures this persona with infectious charm and beguiling sex appeal, creating an enticing portrayal. Irv has his own attraction but isn’t quite as impactful. There’s a meekness to his role that makes it hard to measure up to the more boisterous Bernal, yet he handles his own competently. They are the major focuses amongst this cast, even though there are recognizable faces, including Willem Dafoe, Maribel Verdú, and a blind-and-you-miss-it Peter Sarsgaard. The latter two are very underserved with shallow characters, but Dafoe does make an impression. The character may not have a lot of dimensions, but it’s impossible not to be mesmerized by any action he commits.
“Pet Shop Days” succeeds best when it fully embraces the chaos at its core. The crazed delirium is perfectly captured in the filmmaking, a grimy yet riveting exhibition that comes alive in every frame. It’s a shame that the foundations of the screenplay are where more character shading is missing. The hurried nature of the storytelling lessens the impact this piece could have aspired to hold. Still, this film manages to be intriguing enough to warrant attention. It’s yet another examination of morally questionable individuals who lead a provocative lifestyle, and one cannot deny it can be frustrating but also stimulating to watch.