(Originally published on the Examiner in October 2009, this review has been moved here in its entirety.)
Alejandro (Alejandro Polanco), a Queens urchin, lives and works amongst the junk heaps and stolen cars of the local chop shop - both a street-savvy preteen and a naive dreamer, he knows how to navigate this adult world yet innocently hopes to purchase a van and turn it into ice cream truck. His older sister (Isamar Gonzales) shows up one day and sticks around, spurring him on in his dreams - yet she also wounds him, when he discovers she's turning tricks to make ends meet.
An excellent little film, glowing with a surprisingly warm poetic touch. The performances, turned in by nonprofessionals, are uniformly engaging - though limited in technique, the actors nonetheless convey buried emotions as they shuttle between ambivalence (feeling overwhelmed by their conditions) and resolve (working incredibly hard, pursuing - fanciful? - goals). The boy's heartbreak on discovering his sister's secret is deeply affecting. Director Ramin Bahrani engages with his protagonist's lifestyle without condescending to them; he demonstrates how a barely-furnished hovel above a garage can become a vaguely comfortable home with the presence of a loved one or a resolution that one will take what one can get. The story, while loosely structured, moves forward through its eighty-five minutes, accumulating memorable details and privileged moments along the way, keeping us curious, allowing its characters to grow but not too much. Most of all, the photography captures the vitality of a location: this may not be the ideal home or workplace but Bahrani does not leer with mock horror; he shows us, as with that hovel, how the little boy fits into his landscape, the camera capturing the latent beauty much as we suspect the precocious adolescent does.
Neorealism, as a pseudo-documentary style following the lives of fictional, but realistic, poor people, first made its appearance sixty-five years ago in postwar Italy. Bahrani, a young American filmmaker, has taken up the torch amidst today's multiplex blockbusters and twee indie quirkfest (in which it's taken for granted that money is not a concern). This 2007 film is his follow-up to Man Push Cart, a highly praised but (to these eyes) overrated debut in which the pretty surfaces, contrived storylines, phony performances, and aggressively pronounced camerawork distracted from the heart of the story. Chop Shop feels much more naturalistic, and less uneasy about its own romanticism, which comes with the territory: Bahrani is obviously attracted to beauty, however slummed up, and to pretend otherwise would be dishonest. Here he does not try to disguise his penchant for street poetry, but rather integrates it with the hardscrabble life he conveys and the rhythms of the human society on hand. Roger Ebert has called him "the new great director." I would not go that far - his milieu still feels a little forced, his poetic touch slightly overbearing, a certain intensity still lacking - but he's certainly showing promise. His latest film, Goodbye Solo (unseen by me, but very highly praised by others) is now on Netflix.