Brent Simon brings us another piece of content straight out of Venice Film Festival as he brings us this Pet Shop Days review.
For folks who haven’t committed to exploring the era themselves, or those even perhaps too young to remember, the 1990s independent film scene was a fabulous time. And among the many rich veins of sub-genre the time period served up, perhaps one of the most entertaining was an entire oeuvre of horned-up New York stories.
Some of these particular movies were coming-of-age tales, while some were proudly depraved character studies of down-swirls into sex and drugs. Others invested more in the criminality of their protagonist, while still allowing for loads of healthy, willfully provocative nudity.
Above all, these movies tended to share an affinity for putting extreme behavior on an equal pedestal with actual narrative.
This is all worth reminiscing about with regards to the dramatic thriller Pet Shop Days, a recent world premiere at the 2023 Venice Film Festival. The directorial debut of Olmo Schnabel, son of fine artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel (Basquiat, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, At Eternity’s Gate), the movie is a tedious, self-consciously stylistic exercise in youthful excess — a chaotic throwback to the horny, New York independent cinema of yore.
In short, it’s a loud, cinematic cover song by a band who doesn’t quite know how to play in tune.
The movie opens in Mexico, with Alejandro (Dario Yazbek Bernal, half-brother of Gael Garcia Bernal) and the older Karla (Maribel Verdú) in a languid embrace on a bed, bemoaning the fact that they have to attend a party being thrown by Castro (Jordi Mollà).
The fact the pair are mother and son introduces a vaguely incestuous whiff and sense of intrigue, but this is rather quickly undercut when Alejandro accidentally hits his mom with his car, and then flees his well-off family for the Big Apple.
There, he connects with Jack (Jack Irv, also a co-writer on the project), a somewhat listless young man working at a pet store and still living at home with his parents, Francis (Willem Dafoe) and Diana (Emmanuelle Seigner) and younger sister Lucy (Grace Brennan). Alejandro and Jack become lovers, with the former seemingly unlocking a blocked sexuality in Jack.
Alejandro’s father dispatches Walker (Louis Cancelmi) to try to find his son and bring him home, though the fuzziness of Walker’s exact mandate undercuts any truly escalating sense of stakes or tension. Meanwhile, Alejandro’s impulsiveness and penchant for criminality pulls he and Jack in an increasingly dangerous direction.
The connections of Schnabel’s father help assure a roster of familiar faces in small and cameo roles (the aforementioned Dafoe, Seigner, Verdú and Mollà, plus Peter Sarsgaard and Angela Sarafyan), and real-life adult film starlet Abella Danger even pops up in a cameo that provides a legitimate laugh-out-loud moment.
This outrageous sequence, a derailed threesome, is just one of several bits — other examples include Francis confronting a lingerie thief, and Jack declaring his sexuality in unusually profane terms at a family dinner at a Chinese restaurant — that seem designed to shock.
But everything about Pet Shop Days — from its scripting down to its acting and directing — is just about “Big Choices,” rather than things which might reasonably and realistically flow from the actions of its characters onscreen. The heightened, nonsensical emotional pitch of the story proves exhausting.
Irv comes closest to punching through this mania, and leaving an impression; he has a soulfulness that, in more assured hands, could be leveraged into making an audience care. But Bernal is one big ball of over-articulated emotional energy.
The film’s small accrual of falsities — one scene feeling off, like a slapdash first draft, never polished, soon feeding into another with the same basic vibe — eventually snowballs into a massive sense of exasperation in a viewer.
The unappealing visual aesthetic of the movie, shot in grungy, sweaty close-up by cinematographer Hunter Zimny, doesn’t help matters, either.
In the end, any student of ’90s cinema knows that this can only end one of two ways: in an arch, silly, attempted deconstruction of the tropes the movie is purporting to explore, or (much more common) a very self-serious swan dive into tragedy.
Pet Shop Days chooses the latter, and in that regard lands in an especially inert final resting place, with an ending that it believes is surprising and devastating, but is actually just obvious and predetermined.
To be clear, there is no sin at all in youthful ambivalence, or any of the strong central feelings purportedly coursing through the veins of this movie’s protagonists. Neither is there anything wrong with having strong artistic influences, and celebrating those unabashedly.
Pet Shop Days review by Brent Simon
But there is something to be said for writing from a place of core truth, of what one really knows. Pet Shop Days, co-scripted by Schnabel, Irv, and Galen Core, doesn’t do that. Instead, it simply recites, reassembles and recycles a list of scenes it has seen before. And that inherent superficiality comes through, making the film a tedious chore to sit through — whether or not one has actually experienced firsthand any of its many influences.