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CHOP SHOP(director/writer: Ramin Bahrani; screenwriter: Bahareh Azimi; cinematographer: Michael Simmonds; editor: Ramin Bahrani; music: M. Lo; cast: Alejandro Polanco (Ale), Isamar Gonzales (Isamar), Rob Sowuksi (Rob), Carlos Zapata (Carlos), Anthony Felton (Carlos’ Uncle), Evelisse Oritz (Lilah), Ahmad Razvi (Ahmad); Runtime: 84; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Jeb Brody/Lisa Muskat/Marc Turtletaub; Koch Lorber; 2007)
“What Chop Shop does well, is take us into America’s hidden Third World for a bit of culture shock.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The 33-year-old Iranian-American director Ramin Bahrani’s (“Man Push Cart”) was born in the U.S. but lived for awhile in Iran. His sophomoric effort is another small indie film that plays out as a subdued social conscience film that could almost be a documentary. It’s a keenly observed, neo-realistic film in the mold of De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and also follows the form of modern day Iranian directors like Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi. The only thing Bahrani, as of now, is not in a class with those great filmmakers because his films are unable to reach the poetical, except in some of its imagery. What Chop Shop does well, is take us into America’s hidden Third World for a bit of culture shock.

The film centers on the Spanish-speaking scrawny street-smart 12-year-old Ale (Alejandro Polanco), who is an orphan trying to survive on his own by living on the streets, not attending school and under no institution’s supervision (which seems only remotely possible, but it might be possible since no background is given as to how Ale ended up like this and whether he is an immigrant or an illegal).

Ale is first seen by the side of a highway with other young undocumented laborers hoping to get work on a construction site. He gets a break when his young friend Carlos (Carlos Zapata) — someone Ale partners with to sell candy bars on the subway — tells him about a job with an auto shop owner named Rob (Rob Sowuksi). The shop is in Willets Point, Queens, known as the Iron Triangle, not far from where the Mets play in Flushing Meadows. The stadium has a billboard visible to the denizens of the Iron Triangle that says “Make Dreams Happen.” The dreary industrial area consists of a stretch of junk yards, garbage dumps and shady auto-body repair shops. It’s a hustler’s paradise in grime, where the shop owners aggressively pull customers into their shop and stolen cars are secretly delivered to be stripped for their parts. Ale’s pay is off the books and he’s allowed to sleep in a small back room in the shop that has a microwave and a fan. Starting out first as a shill to bring in customers, the quick-learning and hard-working ambitious kid graduates to do body work and also for extra cash sells bootleg porno DVDs, fake jewelry and steals parts from cars surrounding the National Tennis Center and Shea Stadium. He’s joined by his older teenager sister Isamar (Isamar Gonzales), a high school drop-out and street-girl. The kid gets sis work in a nearby food truck selling Spanish meals to the workers and customers, but is unhappy to find that she turns sex tricks to truck drivers cruising the area at night to earn her extra money. Not trusting a soul, Ale stashes his money in a coffee tin can that he hides in a hole in the floor and dreams of saving up enough money to buy his own food vending truck. Carlos’ uncle (Anthony Felton) sells him a broken-down one for $4,500, but the kid’s heart is broken when one of the shop owners, Ahmed (Ahmad Razvi), wises him up that he’s been taken–that the battered truck could never pass a health inspection because the inside is so rusty and beyond repair. This leads the kid down a dangerous path that challenges us to try and understand how difficult is his life, as he robs a woman’s purse in the street.

Ale must rework his American Dream with his sullen sis by his side, and his hope is to make it into adulthood and have a suitable place for him to live with his sis. How he will do it is anyone’s guess, but it’s not going to be easy–he’s living in a dog eat dog world where only the strong survive, and this little glimpse we got of him suggests that he needs a helping hand to guide him out of poverty without a criminal record. The film ends on a metaphoric image, showing Ale feeding the pigeons crumbs and for that moment he’s their savior as they gather near him to be fed.

Chop Shop is both touching and depressing, and its truths, as hard as they are to stomach, cannot be doubted. But what can be questioned are if the filmmaker’s sympathies for the youngsters are misplaced as false sentiments. Their reality seems too real to be real and more like an arthouse fairytale that promises no such thing as a happy ending, as it was hard to imagine that no one in the Iron Triangle related to Ale other than in a cold work-related way. All Ale’s interactions with the adults just didn’t feel right–in a film that, I must say, makes me wary because it leaves hanging the dilemma of what is the responsible thing to do for an under-aged minor who should be under adult care and not at the mercy of creepy adults to be exploited and dealt with as if he was just another spare part in the Iron Triangle.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”