Chop Shop (2007), the second film by Iranian-American director Ramin Bahrani, is set in Willets Point, Queens. Known locally as the Iron Triangle, Willets Point is an industrial zone of some twenty sewerless and sidewalk-free blocks of broken streets fronting auto-repair shops and junkyards, nestled between the backside of Shea Stadium and the runways of La Guardia Airport. It's a place Mayor Bloomberg has called "the bleakest part of Queens," and which F. Scott Fitzgerald described as "the Valley of Ashes." Willets Point looks more like the bad side of Tijuana, than a business district ten miles' drive from Manhattan.
Twelve-year-old Alejandro (Alejandro Polanco), who answers to Ale (All-ee), and his sixteen-year-old sister Isamar (Isamar Gonzales), live in the backroom of an auto-body shop owned by Rob (Rob Sowulski). Ale and Isamar don't recount how they've come to be on their own. Self pity is a luxury these street kids don't allow themselves. The Ale we see is already moving beyond the world of play that still enchants his young pal, Carlos (Carlos Zapata). Increasingly, Ale's waking life revolves around hustling for every dollar he can by legitimate work for Rob, and a myriad of increasingly less legitimate means including hawking candy on the subway and pirated DVDs and fake jewelry on the streets, stealing hubcaps and snatching purses, and working nights at an illicit chop shop.
Isamar is everything to Ale; by turns mother, older and younger sister, daughter, and unconsummated lover. In some ways, Isamar is more childlike than Ale. She's more frivolous and less focused than he, eager to buy clothes, hangout with friends, and fantasize about moving away. But she's also already snared in the grind of low-wage work in a taco truck by day and turning tricks in cars by night.
For all his no-nonsense street smarts, Ale is still a kid susceptible to pursing dreams too fantastic to be achieved. It's the exploitation of Ale's gullibility, and the consequences thereof, which take up much of the second half of Chop Shop. Though the situation for Ale and Isamar often appears grim, it never feels like director Bahrani and co-writer Bahareh Azimi are out to set the heavens against them. The obstacles Ale and Isamar face feel real enough, and without giving too much away, it's fair to say that though Chop Shop doesn't include a Hollywood happy ending, it does end on a hopeful note.
Chop Shop appears to take inspiration from neorealist classics such as Vittorio De Sica's Shoe-Shine (1946), but also from the contemporary work of the Brothers Dardenne, especially Rosetta (1999). Bahrani filmed on location in the Iron Triangle, using real denizens of the area for the film many of whom were told that Bahrani was filming a documentary. Further, the shop that Ale and Isamar bunk in, is really owned and operated by first-time actor Rob Sowulski, and much of the work that Ale does for Rob in the film is real work for which Alejandro Polanco will earn double wages as worker and actor. What's more, if Ale seems especially comfortable doing this kind of work, there's an explanation for that too - Bahrani had him work for Rob for six months before principal filming began.
Chop Shop was filmed using near-natural light on 35mm. The camera work by director of photography Michael Simmonds is kinetic, but low key. It navigates between the stolen shot, rough-and-tumble look of cinematographer Alian Marcoen's work on the films of the Dardenne Brothers, and the overly-choreographed or stylized shots found in bigger budget Hollywood flicks. There are a few elaborately choreographed shots in Chop Shop, but the camerawork never appears overdone, and never steals the scene.
This release retains the theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The image is enhanced for widescreen and generally looks good with natural and consistent coloration and generally sharp detail despite mild aliasing.
Optional English subtitles are well rendered. Curiously though, the occasional Spanish dialogue is translated into English rather than faithfully transcribed in the original Spanish.
The 2.0 Dolby Digital audio track sounds good with some separation between channels and no noticeable dropouts or distortions. Although filmed on location in a frequently noisy environment dialogue is always easily understandable without sounding artificially so. A 5.1 audio track would have been nice to place the viewer more fully into the environ, but the 2.0 works well enough.
Extras consist of previews for six other Koch Lorber Films releases, the theatrical trailer for Chop Shop, eight rehearsal scenes, and a commentary track with director Ramin Bahrani, cinematographer Michael Simmonds, and lead actor Alejandro Polanco in which they discuss the lengths to which they went to achieve the film's sense of realism.
If Mayor Bloomberg has his way, the auto-body shops and junkyards of Willets Point will soon be razed and replaced by a million feet of upscale retail space, a hotel, and a convention center. For good or ill, this unique, but troubling landscape of small businesses may give way to banal corporate commerce. If this happens, Chop Shop may be the last, best record of this gritty industrial landscape just minutes from Manhattan, and it'll be worth having in one's home video library for this reason alone. However, this film is much more than it's location. Chop Shop is a gem of contemporary neo-realism that feels honest and free from condescension or judgment in its portrayal of the lives of some of those living on the margins of American society.
Chop Shop is highly recommended.