Dir: Ramin Bahrani. US. 2007. 84 mins
A flawlessly observed piece of street realism, and an unforgiving parable of American economic reality, Chop Shop is a compelling follow-up to Man Push Cart, Ramin Bahrani's 2005 debut.
Using a non-professional cast to convincingly natural effect, the film follows in the tradition of Los Olvidados and Pixote as it recounts the turmoils of a 12-year-old boy fending for himself in the car repair jungle of Queens, New York. Less character-driven than Man Push Cart, more an evocation of a harsh enclosed world and the survival skills it requires, Chop Shop again proves Bahrani's skill at treading a thin line between fiction and quasi-documentary.
Sketchy narrative and a dramatically unglamorous setting will limit sales to discerning niche distributors, but the film will burn bright on the festival circuit and enhance Bahrani's rising profile.
'Chop shop' is the slang term for illicit repair shops that recycle stolen cars for spare parts. The film is set in Willet's Point, Queens, around the Shea baseball stadium, an area known as the 'Iron Triangle' for its proliferation of scrapyards and body shops.
Twelve-year-old Alejandro, or 'Ale' (Polanco), is an orphan who earns his own keep by vending sweets and DVDs, but mainly by working in the auto shop run by Rob (Sowulski) in return for payment and lodging over the premises.
When Ale's 16-year-old sister Isamar (Gonzalez) moves out of care, she joins Ale in his digs. Together, the siblings cherish Ale's dream of buying and refurbishing a wrecked food van - a goal for which the boy is saving up a serious amount of money. Isamar, meanwhile, is moonlighting as a prostitute servicing local men - one of whom, Ahmad (Razvi) is able to put some car work his way.
Chop Shop is compelling both as fiction and as filmic journalism, as Bahrani and his team have immersed themselves thoroughly in Willet's Point culture and the minutiae of the repair trade. Michael Simmonds' hand-held HD camerawork brings an immediate, hugely kinetic feel.
Largely cast from real-life denizens of the Iron Triangle, the film has the convincing smack of reality: Sowulski, for example, actually owns the garage seen in the film. The acting is uniformly impressive, although much of the time it seems as though the cast are simply being themselves: an exception is Razvi, the lead of Man Push Cart, who makes his mark with an economically sketched minor character. Young lead Polanco is a terrific find, giving Ale a delicate combination of wide-eyed naivety and street-rat amorality.
A mercifully if subtly upbeat ending adds a gentler note to what could have been a brutal drama: nevertheless Chop Shop is a striking film, in which you can practically taste the rust and the desperation.
Muskat Filmed Properties
The Works International
North American sales