The movies have so thoroughly explored the nooks and crannies of New York City that one might think there's nothing more the Big Apple has to offer filmgoers. Chop Shop, however, takes audiences to a New York far removed from the stomping grounds of Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese or Spike Lee. Writer-director Ramin Bahrani introduces us to Willets Point, a 20-block section of Queens in the shadow of Shea Stadium, a ramshackle expanse of auto repair shops, scrap yards and people struggling to eke out a living.
Chop Shop's hero is a scrappy 12-year-old boy named Alejandro (Alejandro Polanco). He lives in the backroom of an auto repair shop and spends his days scraping together a few bucks any way he can -- selling candy on the subway, hawking DVDs, stealing hubcaps. He is saving what he can to buy a broken-down mobile kitchen that he and his 16-year-old sister, Isamar (Isamar Gonzales), would use to sell food to the neighborhood workers. Ale hopes such an endeavor could enable his sister to stop turning tricks at night.
Some of Chop Shop's most enthusiastic champions have likened the movie to Brazil's City of God, but Bahrani's loose narrative structure and cinema verite-styled camera have more to do with the tenets of Italian neo-realism. Plot is not front and center here. Instead, Bahrani drops us in a universe where we sense that Alejandro and Isamar have existed before the movie began and will exist long after the closing credits. No backstory is offered to explain why this brother and sister are on their own. None is needed; given the urgency of their poverty, the kids' background is of little consequence.
It is also a world unaccustomed to American cinema. Willets Point has been targeted by city leaders for major redevelopment. Dubbed the Iron Triangle, the sewerless crime- and pollution-infested area has been decried by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg as "a euphemism for blight." But Chop Shop is clear-eyed in its depiction of the community, avoiding cheap sentimentality and easy moralizing. Alejandro is heartsick that his sister prostitutes herself, but he does not condemn her. He accepts reality.
And after all, Alejandro does what he must. In one memorable scene, the boy watches a young, well-to-do mother futzing with her child in a baby stroller. Bahrani cuts from Ale's point of view to the character's reaction at what he sees, but the director jostles our expectations. We assume we've seen this setup a million times in movies -- feisty Alejandro will be moved by the motherly affection, or he will have pangs of envy for the childhood he never experienced, or some such well-worn sentiment.
Instead, Ale waits for the opportune time to snatch the woman's purse. It's not a pivotal scene, perhaps, but it encapsulates a brutal honesty that propels Chop Shop's more fascinating moments.
There are limits, however, to the emotional impact of a movie that shuns conventional storytelling. The picture is compelling, if not seamless. Polanco's performance is stilted and occasionally awkward; and a film determined to show the prosaic side of life runs the risk of lapsing into ennui itself. Still, Chop Shop boasts a conviction sadly lacking in most indie films.
Presented in widescreen 1.85:1 and enhanced for 16x9 television screens, Chop Shop has a clear, crisp picture with sharp lines and solid details.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 track is perfunctory, if unremarkable. Sound is clear and clean, although there is some slight inconsistency in volume. Subtitles are available in English, which can be helpful with a few of the characters' heavy accents.
A commentary brings together director Bahrani, actor Polanco and cinematographer Michael Simmonds for an informative and interesting dissection of the film. Also included are 11 minutes and 16 seconds of eight rehearsals (unfortunately, they cannot be viewed separately), a theatrical trailer and previews for Man Push Cart (Bahrani's film prior to Chop Shop), The Bridge, Summer '04, Blame It on Fidel, Klint and La Chionise.
There is much to admire in Ramin Bahrani sophomore effort -- its frank presentation of poverty, its naturalistic approach, its refusal to strain for easy moralizing - that Chop Shop's flaws seem small by comparison.