May 01, 2008

Chop Shop

Grade: B
Director: Ramin Bahrani
Starring: Alejandro Polanco, Isamar Gonzales, Rob Sowulski, Caros Zapata, and Ahmad Razvi
Running Time: 1 hour, 24 minutes

Not to be confused with Stephen Frears’ representations of the seismic tremors occurring along the social and cultural divide, North Carolina-born director Ramin Bahrani, in Man Push Cart and now Chop Shop, steeps his audience squarely in society’s impoverished underbelly. One of the few visual cues that the setting for Chop Shop is a major American city, and not a random Third World slum, is the periodic glimpse of New York City’s Shea Stadium, affixed with the ironic placard that this is a place where one can “Make Dreams Happen.”

Otherwise, the tableau of Willet’s Point, Queens is that of an insular netherworld, an alleyway of auto repair shops and junkyards devoid of sidewalks, sewers, or even official residents. Like the refuse that coagulates every time rainfall floods the corridor, the so-called “Iron Triangle” is the depositing point for society’s sediment, where commerce is driven by scrap, vice, and stolen merchandise. Its denizens are not lazy lowlifes, but a collage of immigrants and indigents shackled to a hardscrabble subsistence.

In this meager milieu is where we meet Alejandro (Alejandro Polanco), a 12-year-old Latino street orphan living in a spartan shanty above the garage where he works when not hustling for a buck by peddling chocolate bars, bootleg DVDs, or stolen hubcaps. Ale’s reunion with his 16-year-old sister, Isamar (Isamar Gonzales), spurs on his dream of saving the $4,500 needed to buy a used food truck in hopes of starting his own mobile vending business. His relationship with Isamar grows complicated when he learns that she is moonlighting as a prostitute. While Ale’s attitude toward his sister becomes more paternalistic, he rationalizes keeping the money she earns as necessary for the one vehicle that could deliver them some measure of independence.

Chop Shop's depiction of a coming-of-age immigrant story also involving sibling relationships set in a New York City ghetto – not to mention the tactic of giving the characters the same first names as the amateur actors playing them – is evocative of Peter Sollet’s Raising Victor Vargas. The principal difference – among many – between the two films is a matter of perspective and presentation. While Victor Vargas was, for all its realistic detail, a nostalgic coming-of-age story, Bahrani’s neorealist filmmaking style is so authentic it could be mistaken at times for a vérité documentary. The synergy between Ale and his sister, his working-class employers and acquaintances, and his best friend Carlos (Carlos Zapata) is laced with street-wise lingo and muted affection.

The film’s greatest strength, however, is also its most notable shortcoming. Chop Shop is so deeply contemplative and unvarnished that it risks redundancy even with a succinct 84-minute running time. Flirtations with narrative embellishment quickly evaporate, such as when Carlos discovers the hideaway for Ale’s cash stash, or when Ale purse-snatches outside the U.S. Open tennis tournament. Still, the plot is propelled not by elaborate twists and turning points but the genuine struggle to surmount a suffocating everyday inertia wrought by life’s hard circumstances.

A neighborhood game in which pigeons are attracted by feed spread along the concrete and then scared away at first symbolizes the allusive nature of the American Dream to those drawn by its allure. Eventually, however, the pigeons’ flight is signifies the equally allusive ecstasy of escape. Chop Shop’s opening scene depicts a gathering of day laborers waiting curbside for some employer to drive-by and handpick them for work. The film lays bare a near-dystopian America that, like the titular scrap-yard, views and values its inhabitants like disassembled spare parts.

Neil Morris

1 comment:

Roadside Attractions said...

I'm so glad you dug 'Chop Shop.' Be sure to check out Bahrani's latest film 'Goodbye Solo' when it opens in theaters on March 27th. Roger Ebert calls it "a force of nature" and The New York Times' A.O. Scott says it has "an uncanny ability to enlarge your perception of the world." You can check out the trailer and theater listing at