You wouldn’t think it by reading the plot, but Chop Shop provides a rare uplifting quality.  An orphaned 12 year old kid runs around doing odd jobs within the grey markets outside of Manhattan, and it is clear that nothing will dramatically change for him unless he hustles on his own.  Even then, his odds for success seem far-fetched.  And this is the beauty of Chop Shop, the idea that despite an otherwise hopeless set of circumstances, a young boy chooses still to attack life with endless energy and optimism.  Here is an intimate look at a pocket of New York that we rarely see in movies.

The Players:

  • Director: Ramin Bahrani
  • Writer: Ramin Bahrani, Bahareh Azimi
  • Cast: Alejandro Polanco, Isamar Gonzales, Rob Sowulski, Carlos Zapata

Notes:

There aren’t too many films that show the day to day struggles of a 12 year old paying for his entire livelihood by the sweat of his own efforts.  IT seems like a third world country problem, but it also occurs in American, whcih gives Chop Shop a unique perspective.  For Ale (Alejandro Polanco), school is never brought up -  and the film suggests he is unable to read, but the movie isn’t concerned with this.  Out of all the adults with whom he interacts, none stop to question his autonomy.  For Ale, this is just the way it is. But Chop Shop makes no attempt to over-sentimentalize him.

Ale rents a small room inside a repair shop, where he lives with his older sister, Isamar (Isamar Gonzalez), who not as focused and forward-thinking.  Isamar has trouble holding a steady job, while Ale is endlessly hustling, whether it be selling pirated movies, used car parts, or candy on trains.  Despite being only 12, he seems to be as adept with tools as he is playing baseball with other kids… though there isn’t much room for play in Ale’s life.  Polanco is perfectly cast as Ale, his emotions and ability to adapt to new situations is convincing, and you get the real sense that he’s made a life out of scrapping.  His spirit is aspirational, and when Isamar points out problems, he’s persuasive when he explain he’ll “work shit out”.  Perhaps the most charming moments also relate to Ale’s drive to start his own food truck business.

Later, Ale discovers why Isamar has been coming home late; she’s prostituting herself for extra money.  Ale’s love for Isamar is such that – even after Isamar refuses to reveal the truth – Ale refuses to force the issue.  Instead, he quietly brings his sister a tip jar while she works at a food truck, hoping that this might help prevent her nightly pursuits for money.  There is so much innocence in this gesture, and the simplicity with which it is demonstrated speaks to director Bahrani’s ability to create powerful scenes with subtlety.  He’s also great at giving a sense of “place” throughout the film, as you get the feeling that the environment is real and that is the only world Ale has ever known.

Brief Words for Mr. Ebert:

The opening scene where Ale attempts to find work as a day laborer reminds me of El Norte, not so much because of the type of work Ale seeks, but more so because of the realism.   Mr. Ebert, when you say that “everything about Chop Shop feels natural and effortless,” I nod in approval.  Almost everything you can take away from this film is the result of the viewer’s take, there’s no spoon feeding.  And there is no easy happy ending. And yet, while the ending is not hopeful in a more conventional sense, Chop Shop offers the sense that life goes on. Horrible conditions might surround us, but facing them with courage and optimism can be reason enough to smile and look forward to another day.

I also find myself in agreement that Chop Shop has two things American movies hardly ever get right; children and work.  Ale, beyond demonstrating an ability to engage with adults at a very high level of business shrewdness, has a personality and awareness that further make him somewhat indistinguishable from other adults.  Great care is given to treating his character as a full human being.  It shows us a corner of our world but seems to fall short in telling us something more about it.  Nevertheless, it’s an effective gem of movie, and one that I suspect has the potential to grow over time.

Good, Bad or Great Movie:  GOOD

Do you like Chop Shop?  Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?

Next week’s review:  A Prairie Home Companion

Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of 354 films.  Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response.  By taking on Ramin Bahrani’s Chop Shop this week, he now has 280 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go.