Film-Forward Review: CHOP SHOP

Reviews of Recent Independent, Foreign, & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video

Alejandro Polanco as Ale
Photo: Jon Higgins

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Directed by Ramin Bahrani
Produced by Lisa Muskat, Marc Turtletaub & Jeb Brody
Written by Ramin Bahrani & Bahareh Azimi
Director of Photography, Michael Simmonds
Edited by Bahrani
Released by Koch Lorber Films.
USA. 85 min. Not Rated.
With Alejandro Polanco, Isamar Gonzales, Carlos Zapata, Ahmad Razvi & Rob Sowulski

You take the No. 7 subway or the Long Island Rail Road to Willets Point to see Mets baseball or the U.S. Open. But when redevelopment plans finally come to fruition, Chop Shop will be the only way to see the gritty strip of auto salvage yards, dubbed “The Iron Triangle,” on the other side of the stations.

Filmed in the palpable summer heat, the intimate hand-held camera of director Ramin Bahrani and cinematographer Michael Simmonds follows scrawny but plucky 12-year-old orphan Ale (Alejandro Polanco), who fleetingly fits in moments of play with his best friend in between his tireless efforts to avoid foster homes and to make a buck, including selling candy on the subway with a charmingly honest spiel.

Steering car customers as a shill earns Ale the brusque but kindly mentorship of legit repair shop owner Rob (authentically played with a tough Queens accent by real shop owner Rob Sowulski). The entrancing Polanco spent so much time learning the tricks of the trade in the neighborhood (and earning tips) that the locals thought Bahrani’s crew was filming a documentary, and the busy work scenes feel that genuine.

Ale carves out a cozy above-the-shop home to share with his 16-year-old sister Izzy (Isamar Gonzales), and he takes seriously the macho code of protecting her, even getting her a nearby job where he thinks he can keep an eye on her. (By coincidence, Polanco and Gonzales go to school together, and their interactions are warmly familial.) Setting his sights considerably lower than the planes incessantly taking off from nearby LaGuardia Airport, he is determined that he and his sister should stay together, confidant that all their problems will be solved by a food truck they can renovate to jointly work as a family business.

It’s some time into the film until we see other boys of summer when the roar from Shea Stadium reaches Ale and the camera slowly pans up the sides of the adjacent ballpark. In a mournful shot, Ale glimpses a game from the station entrance, next to a fan decked out in full Mets regalia.

But financial pressures undermine Ale’s self-reliant fantasy. The tennis championship fans flooding the station walkways become too tempting marks for Ale, just as truck drivers with cash are for Izzy. As the subtly sinister proprietor of the titular illegal, after-hours operation, Ahmad Razvi (very different than in Bahrani’s Man Push Cart) pushes Ale further along the slippery slope of moral choices. (Fair disclosure: my car was once vandalized while parked near Shea for a Mets game.) Even as their naïveté is crushed, Ale and Izzy’s abiding optimism leave the film on a somewhat hopeful note, at least a bit more resolved than the stasis of Bahrani’s first film.

Like Louis Malle’s Atlantic City, Bahrani captures grungy city blocks on the cusp of change. Filmed in August 2006 just before the new Citi Field began to rise next to Shea Stadium, the crowded stretch of auto detritus seems as far from the rest of New York City as the hardscrabble towns of so many heartbreaking Third-World films where entrepreneurial boys aggressively take on adult responsibilities. Chop Shop is both strikingly similar and touchingly distinctive. Nora Lee Mandel
February 27, 2008



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