The sort of sociological study far more associated with Third World cinema than with American movies, “Chop Shop” scrutinizes life in the so-called “Iron Triangle,” a mass of auto shops jammed together on the edge of Queens just beyond the right field parking lot at Shea Stadium. Third feature by Iranian emigre Ramin Bahrani follows the lead of his last pic, “Man Push Cart,” in tightly observing a protag on the most invisible margins of U.S. life. An active fest career and brief commercial run await.
Central figure here is Alejandro (Alejandro Polanco), a spirited 12-year-old orphan who earns his tiny quarters at the back of one auto repair garage in exchange for luring customers in and doing all manner of odd jobs. Enterprising, but hardly in a cute, charming way, the precociously entrepreneurial Ale, as he’s called, seems well on his way to becoming a first-class businessman in the hustler vein within a few short years, although his lack of family and any normal education will obviously impact him.
Bahrani, whose “Man Push Cart” examined the struggles of a Manhattan coffee vendor, imposes no dramatic artifice on his little vignette as he energetically keeps up with the movements of his bold, slim subject. Only with the arrival of Ale’s older sister Isamar (Isamar Gonzales) do any real dramatic interchanges occur; delighted to have her there, Ale finds her work, but eventually becomes greatly disturbed by how she chooses to earn some extra coin.
Vibrantly filmed in the area F. Scott Fitzgerald dubbed “The Valley of the Ashes” in “The Great Gatsby” more than 80 years ago, “Chop Shop” tries the patience and seems thin because of its lack of any real insights into contemporary American life; what Ale goes through trying to work his way up from the bottom of society is no different than it would be anywhere else. Ultimately, the pic will be noted and remembered not for any inherent drama or analysis but for its simply having so thoroughly documented a strange place most people have never seen and never knew existed.
Shot in August of 2006, the pic boasts fine technical work all around.