Review: "Chop Shop"

Watching Chop Shop, director Ramin Bahrani's (who, by the way, is a North Carolinian) follow-up to his acclaimed Man Push Cart, I was instantly reminded of Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep, a 1977 masterpiece I championed quite a bit when it was finally released in theaters just last year.

Like Burnett's film, Chop Shop doesn't tell a story in the conventional sense. It is more like a slice of life, following a young, Hispanic orphan who is fending for himself on the streets of New York City. Working and living in an auto body shop in a rough neighborhood outside of Queens, Alejandro (Alejandro Palanco) is a tough, street smart kid with big dreams, who is faced not only with taking care of himself and proving his value to the adults around him, but taking care of his irresponsible 16 year old sister, Isamar (Isamar Gonzales), who makes her money on the side as a prostitute.

But Bahrani isn't interested in introducing false conflicts or injecting plot twists that don't belong. So he dispenses with plot altogether, opting instead for a naturalistic, free flowing form so that the film and its characters seems more found than created, representing life as it is actually lived in the slums of New York.

As such, Chop Shop bears more than a passing resemblance to Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves and the films of the Italian Neo-Realists (and, very randomly, Peter Sollett's Raising Victor Vargas), using non-professional actors, unaltered found locations, and no musical score to create a raw naturalism. The long, hand-held takes suggest that the events were merely captured on film, not set up and created by a director, with actors reciting memorized lines that were penned by a screenwriter.

That is what makes the film such a wonderful little gem. It never feels artificial or created, it feels raw, earthy and urgently immediate. Bahrani is in no hurry to move any story along or manufacture any character arcs. For an hour and a half, he just lets his characters be, living their lives as they would on any normal day in a part of the world most of us don't see. It is poverty in our own backyard, a third world country in the shadow of the Empire State Building, and Bahrani invites us to walk those litter-strewn streets with a ten year old street urchin who knows his way around better than anyone else.

It's strangely engrossing and ultimately, surprisingly moving. It's a movie where literally nothing of any great significance happens, but therein lies its knowing heart. What may seem meaningless to us are moments of great importance for the people who live in this world, where children dream of opening a moving kitchen in the back of an ice cream truck in order to make a better living, who steal hubcabs off of parked cars for a few extra bucks, and sell pirated DVDs on street corners to people who are equally desperate. These are people for whom the simple act of feeding pigeons becomes a life-affirming ritual where just for a moment they can forget their troubles and taste the freedom of birds whose wings can bear them away from the heat and grime in a way they will never be able to.

But Bahrani doesn't wallow in sorrow nor does he allow his characters to. They are oddly happy in their own little corner of the world that seems like an entirely different culture to someone like me, but would be perfectly normal for them. Alejandro has never been to school, and must support a family before he's even old enough to shave. But he holds his own and rises to the challenge, stalwart and focused, always out to prove that his spirit is greater than his height.

Alejandro's likeability holds Chop Shop together (although the people around him can be frustrating...but that's life), and it has such a keen sense of time and place that its almost astonishing to realize that it sprung from someone's imagination rather than from real life. It's not so much a movie as it is a document of a life that never was, but might have been, and probably is.

GRADE - ***½ (out of four)

CHOP SHOP; Directed by Ramin Bahrani; Stars Alejandro Palanco, Isamar Gonzales, Ahmad Razvi, Carlos Zapata, Rob Sowulski; Not Rated; Now available on DVD


Anonymous said…
Can't wait to see this one, lol.
Daniel said…
Indeed, this was an amazing little guy this year. Your comments now make me really mad I missed Killer of Sheep last year...
Anonymous said…
your last sentence makes no sense. sorry, haha. bet you thought you were being poetic.
Maurie said…
Anonymous, your reading comprehension skills lack depth. Bet you thought you were being intelligent.

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