You come away from Chop Shop with a mood, the voluptuous sum of its fine-tuned parts: the way a rundown patch of Queens is always flooded with mud, no matter how recently it rained; the frightful gusto of a junkyard pit bull gnawing on his favorite toy, a giant steel car jack; flocks of pigeons, rice and beans, a plastic-wrapped sneaker sample and castaway flip-flop floating down a rain-slicked street; hot dogs marinated in lighter fluid, smoking from a sidewalk BBQ; the huge, muffled, incantatory chant of “LET’S GO, METS!” that spills out into the parking lot of Shea Stadium, where a 12-year-old boy, dodging the eye of security, pries off hubcaps with a screwdriver.
His name is Alejandro (Alejandro Polanco), and he steals to keep food on the table and his sister Isamar (Isamar Gonzales) away from truckers and their $40 tricks. They’re streetwise orphans, scrappy and alert, squeaking by on the meager resources that Ale’s managed to secure, and retain, with as yet untrammeled optimism. There are odd jobs, paid in cash, courtesy of a kindly auto-shop owner who lets them crash in a tiny room (bed, microwave, refrigerator full of grape soda) at the back of his garage; candy bars and softcore DVDs to sell; a coffee can stuffed with savings; fortitude; innocence; and a dream of independence, as ill-advised as it is poignant, in the form of a rusty old brokedown van, selling for $4,500, that Ale yearns to one day rehabilitate into his very own bright and shiny tacomobile.
All this is imagined by Ramin Bahrani, the acclaimed writer-director of Man Push Cart (2005), though Chop Shop derives much of its value from the sense of being found, not made. As signaled by the transparent naming of his characters, Bahrani inflects his drama with documentary, grabbing sights and sounds directly from the street in a dexterous update of neorealist strategies.
All due props to Ale and Isa, wonderfully authentic and nicely harmonized, but the most engrossing character here is the Willets Point district of Queens, an industrial stretch of unpaved urban flotsam enlivened by a hardworking, multiethnic immigrant population. Working with cinematographer Michael Simmonds, who discovered the “Iron Triangle” when his car broke down, Bahrani is marvelously alert to texture (mud, oil, aluminum, birdshit) and tone (the bustle of the workday, the emptiness of night, how dusk hits the iron girders of a bridge). Ale’s labors are fit into an engrossing, off-hand portrait of an entire quasi-underground economy, premised on verbal contracts and street solicitation (“What you need, what you need?”).
Authentic as all this feels (and smells, and tastes), Chop Shop gives off a heightened sense of reality, a faintly idealized atmosphere akin to the Lower East Side milieu of Raising Victor Vargas, a close relative in the New York branch of neo-neorealism. Bahrani doesn’t omit hardship so much as subsume it within the larger framework of his benevolent sensibility. Chop Shop avoids the pitfalls of romanticism (and miserablism) by keying this empathic touch to the consciousness of Ale and Isa. For them, Willets Point is simply home, and if their ecosystem, precarious as it is, sometimes feels enchanted, that’s because children always transform their surroundings into playgrounds or battlegrounds—arenas of struggle and play.
The narrative conflicts of Chop Shop unfold quickly but unrushed: Ale’s pursuit of his dream van and mounting unease over Isa’s extracurriculars are never directly confronted, but rather subtly insinuated into their relationship through his vigilant commitment to alternative sources of income. Ten more minutes and Bahrani might have tipped to the maudlin, but Chop Shop resolves its poetry and plot in an abrupt, pitch-perfect non-denouement. Life goes on—but not, it seems, for Willets Point as it now stands, “another euphemism for urban blight” per Mayor Bloomberg, gentrification glinting in his eye.