A young boy (Alejandro Polanco) starts off his day by waking up and opening the auto shop where he works before his friend (Carlos Zapata) and he hop onto the G line in Queens to sell candy to commuters. When he’s not doing hocking M&Ms and Sweet Tarts, he’s working hard at the chop shop, selling bootleg DVDs to tired mechanics and doing late-night work for another chop shop run by Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi); anything that might help him obtain a luncheon van, where he might have a chance at finding a place to sleep that isn’t located inside this particular strip of auto shops known as ‘The Iron Triangle.’ The young boy is named Alejandro (Ale for short), he’s 12-years-old and he works more than any college graduate I know.
The 32-year-old director Ramin Bahrani caught my eye two years ago when his debut film Man Push Cart opened in the New Directors/New Films Festival here in New York City. Cart was based in New York, specifically Manhattan; Shop is also immersed in New York, specifically Willet’s Point in Queens. The Country Club sodas, the subway-car sales-pitches, the grapefruit glow of the street lights, the flavored-ice vendors: They should print the movie tickets on MetroCards and be done with it.
A beleaguered slab of neorealism, Bahrani’s film focuses tightly on the day-to-days of Alejandro. This young hustler from Puerto Rico seems older than every other youngster in the film, but yet he still has moments of unblemished childishness. He nags like a kid and he talks like a kid: all pride, little knowledge. When a friend begrudgingly admits to never getting a blow job, Ale makes fun of him but then quickly offers to pay for him to get one. That Ale’s sister Isamar (Isamar Gonzales) is servicing the man they are watching during this exchange seems only befitting.
Isamar and Alejandro are dead-set on the luncheon van but they are more obsessed with an eventual out from the conga-line of chop shops and auto yards their existence has become. No matter how effectively submerged in the Queens scrap pile Bahrani is, there is a lightness here that hinders the film’s fluidity. A noticeable problem arises when Bahrani seems more concerned with what he wants to show than what exists, never more apparent than in conflicts between Ale and his sister’s friends. His cast of young (mostly unprofessional) actors loses much of its organic vitality when they are made to push the story rather than have the story form around them.
Two films into his career, Bahrani has an undeniable penchant for neorealistic narrative in the vein of the Dardenne brothers and Ken Loach, circa Looks and Smiles, but he lacks the intrigue of the latter and the utter brilliance of the former. What he doesn’t lack is a genuine interest in unearthed communities and a deep wanting to understand and document their existence. As it was with his first feature, Bahrani just can’t seem to shake the schematic shadow behind his stories. Does that weaken the topographical wonder of his film? Not really, but it makes Chop Shop an oddity to be stared at thoroughly. What it should be, and what I’m sure Bahrani wanted it to be, was something to be deeply contemplated.
Big flock at the chop shop.