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‘Chop Shop’: Forced into the American Dream

Releasing on The Criterion Collection this month, Ramin Bahrani's Chop Shop is one of the best contemporary film explorations of imperiled youth.

By MovieBabblePublished 3 years ago 3 min read
Chop Shop

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For all the griping we do collectively when child performances go wrong, we don’t often give them enough praise when they go right. Sure, even the best actors can struggle to connect with an unsteady child. Or, in the case of American Sniper, you bypass the possible frustration altogether by forcing Bradley Cooper to cuddle a hilariously fake baby doll instead. When they go right, however, there’s not much that matches them. The ability to capture childlike wonder is a magical thing, and the juxtaposition of childhood innocence with grave circumstances can be a real gut punch. If captured honestly, seeing life through a child’s eyes is one of the most overwhelmingly affecting perspectives cinema has to offer.

Over the last few decades, there are few child performances better than Alejandro Polanco’s in Ramin Bahrani’s Chop Shop, which releases on The Criterion Collection this month. Rarely is he not in the frame; he’s the engine to this sobering, if still hopeful view into a scrappy lifestyle in New York City.

A (Not so) Typical Day

The film begins early one morning with twelve-year-old Alejandro (played by Polanco and referred to as “Ale” throughout the film) in the middle of a crowd of adults waiting for work assignments for the day. The camera doesn’t even put him in the middle of the frame, which is an interestingly inauspicious introduction to our lead character. It seems to signal he’s just part of the group. There’s nothing special about this morning; he’s done this so many times before.

A truck arrives and the driver says he’s looking for two workers. Ale runs to the front, but the man insists he’s not needed. Ale jumps on the back of the truck anyway, but once the man realizes, he pulls the car over, puts Ale on the sidewalk, and gives him some money for breakfast before driving away. Rather than sulking, Ale gets a hold of his friend Carlos and together, they ride the subway all day selling candy to passengers. Ale is impressively mature in these moments: after the subway doors close, Ale addresses the entire car with a speech he’s clearly rehearsed so times he can blurt it out without even thinking.

Hustling is his life. When one opportunity closes, he immediately moves onto the next one. Ale’s quiet courage is so freaking admirable — so many doors have closed in his face that he doesn’t even think about flinching when the next one slams shut. Although, he’s still twelve, and has no parental figure in his life. We don’t know when he last went to school. His attitudes are all survival mechanisms: he learned to be so personable and crafty because his life literally depends on it.

After a day of riding the subway, Carlos mentions that Rob, an owner of one of many auto repair shops in Willets Point, Queens, is looking for new workers. Naturally, Ale jumps at the opportunity and begins working immediately. In addition to paying him in cash at the end of each day (you know, because he’s twelve and child labor laws are things that exist), Rob lets Ale live in the office on the second floor of his shop. He’s soon joined by his older sister Izzy (Isamar Gonzales), who begins working at a food truck that sells to the workers of the many auto shops at Willets Point. They hope that by pulling their money together they can save up to buy a food truck of their own.

Capturing the Iron Triangle

There are a ton of similarities to Ramin Bahrani’s previous film, Man Push Cart. Much of the film follows Ale and his monotonous daily activities at the shop. The noise from all shops surrounds him. (I imagine I would start to lose it if all I heard was the whining of electric drills all day.) But not surprisingly, he’s really useful. He makes for a GREAT guide as he beats adults from other shops out to cars looking for repairs and ushers them over to Rob’s garage. Ale works on the cars too, whether it be sanding, bumper repair, or any other kind of work a twelve-year-old kid could possibly handle.

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