Directed and edited by Ramin Bahrani with a script co-written with Bahareh Azimi, Chop Shop tells the story of a twelve-year old boy who lives in an area of Queens, New York City working at an auto shop. With his 16-year old sister, they hope to have a better life and reach the dream of owning and running a food van business. Starring Alejandro Polanco, Ismar Gonzales, Rob Sowulski, Carlos Zapata, and Ahmad Ravzi. Chop Shop is a mesmerizing yet captivating drama from Ramin Bahrani.
Ale (Alejandro Polanco) is a 12-year old orphan looking for work around Queens so he can raise money to buy a food van. With his friend Carlos (Carlos Zapata) helping out by selling candies at subway trains, Ale spends a lot of time working and living in an auto repair shop run by a guy named Rob (Rob Sowulski). When his 16-year old sister Izzy (Ismar Gonzales) arrives, Ale gets her a job working at a food van that she reluctantly takes. When Carlos reveals that his uncle has a food van that is for sale at $4500, Ale continues to work to raise money to buy the van.
After going to see a Mets game nearby at Shea Stadium, Ale makes a discovery that haunts him. Continuing to work and focusing on making money, Ale decides to steal hubcaps and sell pirated DVDs. Even as he meets Ahmad (Ahmad Ravzi) who helps him make extra money by stripping up cars at night. When he finally reaches his goal to purchase the van, Ahmad reveals something that changes his outlook on life.
The story of a boy trying to tough it out in Queens while making a better life for himself and his older sister could’ve been told in a very sentimental yet sweeping fashion that is typical of Hollywood films. Since this is not a Hollywood movie, the neo-realist tone of the film makes it much more compelling for the fact that it doesn’t play by any rules. Ramin Bahrani and co-writer Bahareh Azimi create a script that is very loose by not creating a lot of scenes that’s driven by dialogue but rather by actions. A lot of it is focused on Ale whose development as a boy who has given up his childhood in order to survive by focusing on a dream. During this journey, he comes across things that people had to do along with harsh revelations about the amount of work is put into this dream.
Bahrani’s direction is truly hypnotic as he goes for a cinema verite style in tone while maintaining a look that is very vibrant. With the use of hand-held cameras to a few steadicam shots and shooting it entirely on location. Bahrani aims for that realistic approach in choosing non-actors which is part of his style that he does in his work. Since the direction is very loose and not very stagy, the realness that it provides feels natural as if the audience in this area and part of it. With Bahrani doing the editing, the film has a loose rhythm while doesn’t go for any kind of style in the cutting by playing it straight. Overall, it’s a marvelous film from Ramin Bahrani.
Cinematographer Michael Simmonds does a wonderful job with the photography by creating a gorgeous look to Queens in its very multi-ethnic world along with a shot of Shea Stadium in the background. For its daytime look, Simmonds goes for a natural look while the nighttime scenes have a lush yet gritty quality for its look. Production designer Richard A. Wright and art director Elliot Glick do an excellent job with the look of the place that Ale and Izzy live in along with the scrap yards they encounter. Costume designer Daphne Javitch does a good job with the costumes by maintaining the realism for the film in its look.
The sound work by Tom Efinger is superb for the way it captures the world of Queens in its vast world as it includes sounds of crowds roaring in Shea Stadium which is a real highlight of the sound work. The film’s soundtrack features a lot of Latin-based music including Reggaeton for its more vibrant moments while M. Lo’s ambient-like score is used sparsely as it’s played mostly in the final credits.
The cast is phenomenal for its use of non-actors as it features appearances from Evelisse “Lilah” Ortiz as a friend of Izzy and Anthony Felton as Carlos’ uncle. Other notable small performances include Rob Sowulski as Ale’s car shop boss and Carlos Zapata as Ale’s best friend Carlos. Bahrani regular Ahmad Razvi is excellent as Ahmad, a guy who owns a car shop who helps Ale out with some work. Ismar Gonzales is really good as Ale’s older but often irresponsible sister Izzy who seems more intent in having fun instead of going to work. Finally, there’s Alejandro Polcano in a spectacular performance as Ale. Polcano brings an energy and maturity to a character that could’ve been annoying but Polcano just plays it natural as a kid that wants to do what’s right even though he does things that aren’t very good as it is an amazing performance.
Chop Shop is an exhilarating film from Ramin Bahrani that features a magnificent performance from Alejandro Polcano. Among the films of late 2000s American neorealist films, this is one of the quintessential along with the films of Kelly Reichardt. Even as it surpasses the more stylized approach of Bahrani’s previous film Man Push Cart by employing a looser style of storytelling. In the end, Chop Shop is a rich yet poignant film from Ramin Bahrani.
Ramin Bahrani Films: Man Push Cart - Goodbye Solo - Plastic Bag - At Any Price - 99 Homes - (Fahrenheit 451 (2018 film)) - The Auteurs #55: Ramin Bahrani
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