Chop Shop

2008, Movie, NR, 84 mins


Director Ramin Bahrani proves beyond a doubt that his powerful debut, MAN PUSH CART, was no fluke: His follow-up is an even stronger look at another immigrant struggling to survive on New York City's rough edges.

Like MAN PUSH CART's Ahmad, who hauls a leased vending cart through the Manhattan streets, 12-year-old orphan Alejandro (Alejandro Polanco), a Spanish-speaking street kid, is also trying to make it on society's outer fringes. Instead of going to school, Alejandro tries to make a fast buck any way he can: When we first meet him, he's standing on the side of a highway with other undocumented day laborers, hoping to find work on a construction site. Too young to find legal work, Alejandro gets "lucky" when his friend Carlos (Carlos Zapata) -- with whom Alejandro sells candy bars on the subway -- tells him about a job with a mechanic named Rob (Rob Sowuksi). Rob's shop is in Willets Point, Queens, a grim, industrial stretch of asphalt and mud where scrap yards and auto-body repair shops line both sides of the street like stalls in an ancient souk, and shop owners aggressively compete for customers with promises of lower prices and better service. Alejandro's first job is to stand out front like a barker and direct potential customers into Rob's shop. Rob pays him under the table and provides a place to sleep: A tiny, plywood room with a narrow cot, an electric fan, a microwave and a single window overlooking the street below -- all within earshot of the cheering crowds of nearby Shea Stadium. With an income and a home of his own (such as they are), ambitious Alejandro is finally in a position to provide a home for his older sister, Isador (Isamar Gonzales), who's staying with a friend (Evelisse Oritz) Alejandro neither likes nor trusts. Alejandro helps her get a job in a food truck, but his dream is to save enough money to buy their own van; he has his eye on the dilapidated, obviously worthless jalopy Carlos' uncle (Anthony Felton) is willing to sell for $4,500. When Alejandro realizes Isador has been earning extra money by servicing johns in the trucks that park along the so-called "Iron Triangle" that is Willets Point, he turns to less legal pursuits in hopes of helping the small American dream he has for his sister and himself come true.

With its location shooting, largely nonprofessional cast, documentary-style camera work and unflinching depiction of the grim social environment in which children like Alejandro and Isador struggle to survive -- not to mention an unabashed use of symbolism and sentiment -- Bahrani's second feature perhaps owes even more to the masterpieces of neo-realist director Vittorio De Sica and screenwriter Cesare Zavattini (SHOESHINE, BICYCLE THIEVES) than MAN PUSH CART. His ability to direct nonprofessionals -- the brother-sister chemistry between Polanco and Gonzales is extraordinary -- and his determination to expose shameful, third-world conditions in the Land of Plenty while telling a crackling good story marks Ramin Bahrani as a filmmaker as important as he is accessible. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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