With Chop Shop, Ramin Bahrani exhibits a restraint not found in his 2005 debut Man Push Cart, focusing more intently on his tale’s neorealist particulars than its symbolic potential. Like his prior effort, Bahrani’s latest concerns a marginalized minority male struggling to stay afloat on the fringe of New York City society just long enough to find a way out. Alejandro (Alejandro Polanco) is a 12-year-old without parents or a formal education but a healthy cache of street smarts that allow him to survive—whether it be by selling candy in the subway or bootleg DVDs on sidewalks. Through a friend, Alejandro gets a job at a chop shop (where stolen autos are stripped for parts) in Willet’s Point, Queens, a stretch of auto body establishments so shady, grungy, and depressingly hopeless that the Shea Stadium billboard across the street that reads “Make Dreams Happen” seems like a cruel joke.
In this run-down milieu, Alejandro is reunited with his 16-year-old sister Isamar (Isamar Gonzales), whom the boy both looks up to and wishes to care for, and the two soon endeavor (at Alejandro’s urging) to raise money to buy a beaten-up food truck that’ll afford them a measure of stability and freedom. Disappointment, however, lurks around every giant, muddy Willet’s Point puddle, from Alejandro’s discovery that Isamar is moonlighting as a prostitute, to the after-the-fact realization that his business sense isn’t quite as keen as he believed. The air of dejection that repeatedly threatens to suffocate his aspirations—and which he valiantly strives to shrug off—can be palpable and is augmented by preceding, all-too-rare glimpses of innocent childhood joy, as well as the sure-handed contrast between Alejandro’s safe, sheltering mini-apartment in the upstairs of the garage and the crowded, grimy, violent city streets which he traverses day and night in search of opportunity.
Chop Shop recognizes not only how Alejandro’s letdowns foster bitterness and anger, but also how those feelings help to create something of a self-perpetuating cycle of toxic stasis. At the same time, it captures truth in raw, off-the-cuff moments, such as when a drunken chop-shopper (Man Push Cart‘s Ahmad Razvi) employing Alejandro to help out at a garage party decides to shove the kid into a card table for no reason other than his own mean, bullying amusement. Alejandro and Isama’s nasty-tender sibling rapport has a startling authenticity, yet Bahrani’s screenplay occasionally feels too scripted for its own good, especially when dealing with the subject of Isama’s whoring. And despite its intimate cinematography and a charismatic, if slightly too precocious, performance by newcomer Polanco, the film nonetheless too often fails to get under one’s skin emotionally—save, that is, for a final cut that captures, with manipulative but effecting poignancy, Alejandro and Isama’s twin desires for reciprocated affection and escape.