Boy of Summer: A Review of “Chop Shop”

Kenneth Crab Mar 12, 2008

Chop Shop
directed by Ramin Bahrani
Koch Lorber Films, 2007

To honestly depict a child’s outlook on the world is a rare filmmaking accomplishment. The memorable portraits of children in the work of the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu demonstrate that it takes humility before the child’s unrefined, unproportioned mode of being, which Ozu encapsulates in the cinema’s greatest farting jokes. The opposite strategy of course boils down to a symbolic treatment of the child as mini-adult, dapper and dignified. Such a traditional humanist approach is what Ramin Bahrani opts for in Chop Shop, a cross-section of the ‘Iron Triangle’ of Willet’s Point, Queens, from the vantage point of orphaned 12-year-old Ale (Alejandro Polanco), the scene’s most spirited dweller.

Ale appears a fixture in this improbable 75-acre hotbed of semi-clandestine industrial resourcefulness, comprising garbage dumps, junkyards and auto-body repair shops, where ‘chopped’ car parts are profitably recycled. He works as an apprentice in his boss’s shop and sells swiped parts, DVDs and candy on the side, all toward the goal of making enough money to buy a mobile-food van and start a business with his 16-year-old sister Isamar (Isamar Gonzales). Distant echoes of Scarface resonate through the “Make Dreams Happen” motto on a huge billboard in neighboring Shea Stadium, which rings hollow when the two find their investment to be a scam, and through the role Ale assumes as his sister’s provider and protector, which intensifies and derails once he finds out she sells sexual favors to clients around the premises. The frame of reference only asserts that for all his entrepreneurship, Ale is an impressionable boy in a rough-and-tumble grown man’s world, yet Chop Shop fails to come alive with the dramatic tension inherent in this discrepancy.

Laboriously moving from plot point to threadbare plot point, the narrative sacrifices spontaneity for meaningful gesture. Its vérité detachment feels tame and measured, while its ‘innocent’ point of view proves a contrived nod to the neorealist tradition some critics have claimed the filmmaker espouses. The prominence of children in Italian neorealism reflected an authentic and pervasive sense of wondrous rebirth after the devastation of World War II, an innocence born out of rubble. Chop Shop offers no historical focus on the landmark milieu it depicts and lacks the impressionistic impetus to make palpable the Triangle’s bustling, vital physicality. (Shooting took place in August of 2006, but the summer heat never quite transpires.) Rather than getting down and dirty, Bahrani spins a safe, clean parable of sibling love in the face of adversity.

Despite an impassioned lead performance by Polanco (a non-professional, just like Gonzales), Ale is drawn as a character of such emotional simplicity that by the end, his presence has come to strike an almost purely symbolic chord of hopeful resilience, driven home by the staple image of pigeons flocking around him. Where the film’s overall poise should emanate from his child’s perspective of concurrent frustration and alignment with the haphazard, often juvenile dynamics of male bonding he is embroiled in, this ambivalence imbues just a single inspired moment. When he is hanging out with some of the men, his buddy Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi) pushes him from behind in random jest and provokes a fight with the guy he bumps into – or are they just busting each other’s balls? As the men start acting like kids, the kid appears most vulnerable. A compact, tightly framed shot shows Ale’s discomfort and puzzlement at being caught in the absurdity of a confrontation that is – like life itself – violently charged, yet futile and fleeting as the cigarette smoke that envelops him. This little incident has an intrinsically poignant effect, but within Chop Shop‘s overall air of reticence, its impact is positively Buñuelian.

–Kenneth Crab

Chop Shop is currently playing at the Film Forum.

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