Chop Shop

Jon Higgins/Koch Lorber Films
Ramin Bahrani/United States 2008

Unfolding within a milieu superficially familiar to any Mets fan – the torn sidewalks and cluttered auto body shops of the Willets Point, Queens neighborhood that surrounds Shea Stadium – Ramin Bahrani’s second feature owes a great debt to the austere power of Italian neo-realism. As with Man Push Cart, his debut, Chop Shop illuminates the challenges facing the millions of New York City residents working odd jobs and just hoping to survive from one paycheck to the next.

In following 12-year-old, parentless resident Ale (Alejandro Polanco) in his struggles with various moneymaking ventures, Bahrani (who co-wrote the screenplay with Bahareh Azimi) avoids any heightened dramatic conventions. He incorporates a spare aesthetic that heavily emphasizes the amateur actors, who blend into the environment with natural rhythm and ease. As Ale spends his days working in one of the repair shops, selling candy on the subway, and staring wistfully at a baseball game he can’t afford, Polanco hobnobs, negotiates and yearns with total conviction.

The application of this specific focus to scenes of Ale attempting to fit in with his elders, making decisions no adolescent should be making and confronting their consequences renders Chop Shop a devastating portrait of an impossible existence. The filmmaker presents an all-encompassing vision of the general hopelessness that runs rampant throughout the Willets Point neighborhood. In 2008, that slice-of-life view attains a poignant subtext thanks to the radical change the area currently faces because of plans surrounding the continued construction of Citi Field, the new home of the Mets.

The documentary like approach encompasses the entire scope of the production, from the tracking shots that join Ale in weaving through the city streets to the organic nature of his experiences on them. Bahrani’s depiction of this previously unseen sector of the city and the lives played out therein creates a New York story that stands diametrically opposed to its more standard fairytale counterparts (see Definitely, Maybe). These are the real mean streets.

© 2008 Robert Levin. All rights reserved.

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