Day at the Zoo

By Harris Gurny | Drama
A young man takes his nephew to the zoo, then discovers something wrong with him.

Jared is a 20-something guy living in Brooklyn, and his life is a bit of a mess. Lacking motivation or direction and smoking weed, he's just getting by, living one day to the next by the seat of his pants, though he thinks everything is just fine.

He's charged with taking care of his nephew Peter for the day. Eager to play uncle, Jared takes the young kid to the Bronx Zoo, where they bond and Jared re-experiences the pleasures of a carefree childhood. But when things take a worrying turn, Jared is forced to realize all is not as okay as it seems.

Written and directed by Harris Gurny and shot on film, this short drama has a gritty, naturalistic look and a loose but thoughtful improvisational feel, reminiscent of the great Hollywood urban dramas of the 1970s. This rich chapter of cinematic history, embodied in films like Klute, Mean Streets and Panic in Needle Park, explored the darker and seamier underside of city life. But this short applies this sharp, visual approach to a seemingly lighter, more charming story, of an uncle and nephew bonding, to fascinating and resonant results.

We begin with a fleeting but sharp hint of Jared's messy existence and predilections, though he's careful to hide it, especially from his sister, who's leaving her child in his care. Jared's manner is casual yet furtive, charming yet shifty, and hints of his lifestyle show a man who's more interested in partying than embracing adulthood. Yet in the course of his time with his nephew Peter, Jared drops this shell of a persona. Something about being an uncle connects him to something more genuine and authentic, and their time together at the zoo is captured in almost poetic storytelling, taking vicarious pleasure in the moments and sensations of a child's point of view.

As Jared, actor Zach Spiegel has an unaffected, easygoing quality that's affable and likable, and his time with young performer Callan Berry has a sweetness to it. The two connect on some level, and Jared can connect to Peter on the child's level without condescension. But he's also able to play Jared's desire to hide his proclivities and preoccupations. But then an earlier, shady decision by Jared -- as well as a young kid's propensity to get into everything -- leads to a crisis, one that reveals Jared's lack of responsibility, as well as his limitations.

If this were a different kind of film, the crisis would lead to a personal revelation of sorts, where Jared would change his behavior or re-evaluate his decisions. But this film is too knowing for that, recognizing that people like Jared -- or others dealing with substance abuse -- don't just change with a close call. A charming portrait of an uncle and his nephew becomes a cautionary tale of sorts, and we wonder how many close calls Jared will need to truly change. We're left with a reverie of a charmed afternoon of innocent childhood, seeped with a feeling of uneasiness as we wonder what other turns lie in Jared's path.

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