, 84 m., 2007
Director: Ramin Bahrani
Writers: Bahareh Azimi, Ramin Bahrani (written by)
Stars: Alejandro Polanco, Isamar Gonzales, Rob Sowulski
Ramin Bahrani’s Chop Shop is a raw, effective, moving slice of life which doesn’t just observe its characters, or paint a portrait of their lives – it appears to actually live and breathe them.
In an area of Queens, New York known as the “Iron Triangle,” a 12-year-old kid named Ale (Alejandro Polanco) is a young street hustler, and when we first meet him he’s standing amongst a group of day laborers hoping to be picked for crawl space work for the day. In the shadows of Shea Stadium, Ale has his own little slice of heaven – whether it’s re-selling candy bars on the subway, stealing hubcaps and selling them to a semi-shifty garage owner, Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi of Man Push Cart), or selling bootleg DVDs to people on the street. The “honest” work Ale does is in a chop shop, helping to strip and fix cars for re-selling. Ale lives in a plywood room behind the auto mechanic’s shop with his 16-year-old sister Isamar (Isamar Gonzales), who goes to school, hangs out with her friends, and watches out for her little brother.
The film largely concerns Ale and Izzy’s attempts to save up enough money to buy a portable cart to cook and sell food out of (playing seemingly a different character with the same name, notice how the actor from “Man Push Cart” muses “I used to have one of those”); they have amusing arguments over whose name should be biggest, who gets to pick the color, and, crucially, who gets to hold the money. The closest thing that this movie gets to a plot is the way it comes to concern the relationship between Ale, the responsible younger brother, and his older sister who is keeping a secret that, when it’s discovered, changes the way he sees her.
The film was co-written, edited and directed by Ramin Bahrani, an Iranian-American director who previously made the absorbing Man Push Cart (2005), about a former rock star from Pakistan now working as a Manhattan street vendor. His characters are ordinary people living on the fringes of society, unseen by the majority of people around them, who have small goals, perfectly capable of being realized, and who want desperately to attain them.
The film may remind you somewhat of anything ranging from Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (of the Apu trilogy), to Boaz Yakin’s Fresh (1994), from Hector Babenco’s Pixote (1981) to, more recently, Fernando Mereilles’ City of God (2002); and yet it is a true original. What is intriguing is that Bahrani’s characters are seemingly in search not of a way out of their situation, but simply of another rung up the ladder; their goals are humble, realistic and attainable – if they dream, they do it so subtly they seem to withhold such aspirations even from themselves. In Alejandro Polanco and Isamar Gonzales, Bahrani has found two Puerto Rican kids who embody the film’s sense of realism, lending it a documentary quality. Alongside the beautiful but not flashy hand-held camerawork of cinematographer Michael Simmonds, Bahrani and his cast have created a film that feels authentic down to its very bones. This is one of the year’s best films.
Note: Nominated for Best Cinematography and Director at the 2009 Independent Spirit Awards. Winner of the 2008 Independent Spirit Award for “Someone to Watch.”