The characters of Chop Shop live in New York. But not the glamorous Big Apple most people have visited. Rather, they inhabit a gritty, down and dirty neighborhood in Queens, New York. It's a dirt poor area of town, where people get by by starting what businesses they can. Many children never finished school and in fact, some never even attended any classes at all. The main character for the audience is Ale, played by the young and bright Alejandro Polanco. One could easily make the argument however that Ale represents the constituency of Queens, New York. He is the embodiment of hope, or the result of the failure to fight poverty. We see it through his eyes and live it with him. With no parents to care for him, Ale works and lives in a car repair shop, hence the title of the film. He is but a child, but already he had acquired the gutso and determination to make a living and be independent that others in society still haven't acquired by their early 20s. But then again, Ale doesn't quite live in a society that permits laziness. Find a way to make money or starve.
The business he works for has many rivals on the same streets, and Ale spends most of his days in the street has the bell boy of the business if you will. He asks drivers that pass by what they need done to their automobiles, estimates a price and points them to the garage. But the film shows the viewer much more than that. There is also the matter of his older teenage sister, Isamar (Isamar Gonzales), who is nice and loves him very much, but shows signs of laziness and a lack of will to earn a living. Unlike Ale, she quits jobs like teenagers quit boyfriends and girlfriends. Even though he is considerably younger than her in age, and should be younger than her in terms of maturity, it is up to him to look after her. He finds her a job and invites her to stay at his place for free. There is also his friend who hangs around in a few scenes, but he mostly wants to play. Then again, his friend has an uncle who also works in a chop shop, so he doesn't carry the burden of responsibility like Ale does.
When the film came to a close, the first that came to mind was why more American films can't be like Chop Shop? Is there a problem with telling stories like this, because it seems to me they don't come out of the United States very often. Nonetheless, I applaud writer/director Ramin Bahrani for choosing such a project. It is a perfect example of simple, competent, filmmaking and story telling. It may seem like a compilation of scenes stuck together, but there are in fact two stories being told. The first being Ale strive for economic independence. He is saving up to purchase an old ice cream van (or food stand van, I'm not sure) in order to run his own business. The kid can't even be 10 years old but he has big ideas, and it all feels genuine. A real coup by the young actor and director Bahrani. They work the balance between childlike behavior and maturity (with a particular emphasis on the latter) very, very well. The second story being shared is the story of the community itself. The viewer meets several people along the way. It's a community filled with people who are doing whatever it is they can to make the best out of a pathetic social status. It's sad and perfectly admirable all at once, which is a winning combination for the sake of the film. Bahrani makes use of the hand held 'faux' documentary style to show us the neighborhood, and it works well enough. As is always the case when such a technique is used, there are moments when I wondered what in blazes was the problem with holding the camera still for just a few seconds, but overall is doesn't produce any sea sickness. The richness of the movie of course lies in the characters and the environment, and on both accounts Chop Shop is a excellent example of what a relevant and, more importantly, an interesting film can and should be.
There is little doubt that Alejandro Palanco, as Ale, is a gifted little kid. Rarely do child actors demonstrates such a convincing performance. There is nuance, there is charm, both mature and childlike, and there is raw talent. Understandably this is young Palanco's only film role to date given is age, and whether or not he chooses to continue in film remains to be seen, but here he is quite the captivating young actor. His sister, played by Isabar Gonzales is also good, but this is Palanco's show, both with regards to the narrative and the acting skills. It's fascinating to see him change behavior somewhat later on the in the film when he realizes he has failed in his quest to become economically independent (the papers for the food stand van were not gone through thoroughly enough). Feeling betrayed, he really becomes disappointed and frustrated, just like any entrepreneur adult would if he or she realized they received the short of the stick in a business deal. But it's so gripping to see all this happen to a mere child. I think thematically this strengthens the movie as well. As mature as Ale may be, as intelligent as he may be, he is fallible. He is a kid and has not learned everything yet. Adults will and can still take advantage of his lack of experience and business sense. The movie presents this interesting dichotomy within a specific character. This impressive maturity, clearly beyond his years, coupled with a fallibility that makes him all the more human. It is simultaneously joyous and frustrating to watch unfold. No long not ago I shared my top 5 films of the year 'so far' in the appropriate discussion thread, but this film has shaken the ground underneath that list and I don't know where things stand anymore. Perhaps just before New Year's I will re-evaluate that list and post an update. Be sure to expect Chop Shop somewhere on it though.