From the mind of Olmo Schnabel — yes, he’s the son of artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel — comes one of the most frustrating protagonists to grace an indie film screen this year. The impulsive black sheep of his family, Alejandro is played in the queer romance “Pet Shop Days” by Dario Yazbek Bernal. And if your nepo baby light wasn’t already blinking at the name Schnabel, Dario Yazbek Bernal is also the brother of Gael García Bernal.
After almost killing his mother in a car accident, Alejandro flees the scene of his mobster family’s moneyed party, thrashing his way through the lives of everyone else he encounters in the aftermath while on the run. That includes Jack (Jack Irv), a pet shop worker in crisis with his dying mother (Emmanuelle Seigner) and philandering father (Willem Dafoe), with whom he lives in a pricy Manhattan penthouse. Jack and Alejandro spark an affair that takes them on a debauched trail of drugs, sex, and crime, in “Pet Shop Days,” which Schnabel centers in present-day Manhattan but with the grit of 1980s New York or even more recently “Uncut Gems,” cell phones and screens rarely making an appearance.
Alejandro is so irritating because his reckless decision-making, from posing as a UPS worker to rob Upper Manhattan’s rich and elderly to trashing Jack’s apartment and pilfering his mother’s jewelry stash for seemingly no reason, is ungoverned and unexplained by Schnabel, Irv, and Galen Core’s screenplay. Schnabel obviously feels a kinship with his lead, or at least imbues into his protagonist a sort of half-formed political manifesto: that anarchic behavior, like queerness, is necessary to dismantle the already precarious structures of our fictional everyday reality. “Pet Shop Days” oozes with style and a loose, Gregg Araki-inspired approach to its queer leads’ frantic criminality and messy sexual antics. But that Alejandro and Jack remain so inscrutable in their rebellious behavior makes their chaotic romance an alienating embrace for viewers.
With executive producers including Eugene Kotlyarenko, Michel Franco, Jeremy O. Harris, and one Martin Scorsese — Olmo Schnabel ambitiously wooed the director by sending him the movie almost as a lark — it’s also challenging to separate the pungent nepo-baby-ness from the rest of the project. Schnabel is greatly fortuned to have such an enviable team from top to bottom (the cast also includes Peter Sarsgaard and “Y Tu Mama Tambien” actress Maribel Verdú in barely-there roles), with nascent but still sharp cinematic skill to match. (DP Hunter Zimny shoots the film with a tactile celluloid that really does make “Pet Shop Days” feel like an ‘80s picture.) This promising debut, however wrought from such fair-weather providence with its creative team, has too shaggy a screenplay and seems distracted, like Alejandro, by its own impulses. But “Pet Shop Days’” portrait of a kind-of-like-the-80s-but-now New York City is gritty and vivid enough to suggest real talent behind the camera.
What brings Alejandro and Jack together in their whirlwind, dissipated romance is shared parental baggage and unfixed, wandering identities. Both still live with their families even in college age, with Alejandro in thrall to a verbally abusive father and Jack floundering for a role model in the shape of his own dad. After the violent incident with his mother (Verdú), Alejandro winds up on the lam, living in a hotel on borrowed time and a dwindling cash supply. He courts Jack for a job at the pet shop, and ends up without employment but much more in the process.
Together they hurtle on a sex- and drug-crazed odyssey through Manhattan, burgling upper-crusters and encountering sordid types (including a strip-club-frequenting Sarsgaard outfitted with grills) as Alejandro tries to evade his family closing in on him. Alejandro and Jack’s respective sexualities (both also sleep with women) are refreshingly never defined but their physical draw toward each other is heavy either way. Jack tastes danger in Alejandro but follows him down a dark hole anyway, because it’s not like his life’s compass is pointing him anywhere else. Jack turns out to be the most sympathetic of the two, breaking down when he discovers his father has been sleeping with his sister’s college-age tutor. Alejandro’s loose-cannon, live-wire instincts, however, don’t exactly endear you to the character or help you understand where he’s coming from.
“Pet Shop Days” has a great opening scene in which Alejandro and his mother share a closeness that’s a bit too much, the two of them curled up in bed and sharing confidences. You don’t realize until Alejandro tells her “you look hot, mom” that they actually are mother and son, and it’s this sort of queasy family dysfunction that Schnabel’s film gets right in terms of its particular unruly world.
The film ends in a scene of carnage that feels inevitable but also overdone, its characters left on the hook in search of an ending. Olmo Schnabel is very lucky that his vision could coalesce thanks to the clout and largesse of his collaborators. While “Pet Shop Days” is a frustrating experience, there’s enough swagger behind the camera to indicate the millennial filmmaker has his own irreverent point of view that should separate him from his father’s legacy as he moves forth in Hollywood.
“Pet Shop Days” world premiered in the Orizzonti section of the 2023 Venice Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.