Saturday, April 26, 2008

Chop Shop (2007, Ramin Bahrani)

It's a measure of how far "neo-realism" has come in the past six decades that films that fall into the category are much less concerned with tidy narrative structure and stabs at social concern than with unvarnished portrayals of difficult lives. Freed from the need to couch its storyline in a message, Chop Shop is primarily a character study, and it succeeds mostly by giving us a window into the life of its protagonist, Alé (played by Alejandro Polanco). Alé is a young Latino, about 12 years old or so, whose life is spent in the relentless pursuit of money. As a young immigrant with no parents to speak of, he spends most of his days doing what he can to get ahead, making the most of his natural hustler's confidence and gift of gab. What's most striking about the film is that we get very little background into his life, yet we find out everything we need to know through his actions. Alé spends most of his days surrounded by adults, particularly those who work in the chop shops in the Queens neighborhood where the film is set, and like any kid he wants to like them because he only sees the freedom that comes with adulthood and overlooks the responsibility. But unlike most kids, he doesn't see the commitments of adulthood because he's taken on most of them himself already- making the money he needs, keeping himself fed and sheltered, saving for the future. Mostly, what Alé wants is to be treated with the respect the adults in his life receive, to be truly a part of the world rather than in the outsider position that's afforded children. He wants to be treated as an equal, rather than someone who's just there as cheap labor, as when his boss (and makeshift landlord) curtly admonishes him for counting his money in front of him. Alé is more streetwise than anyone his age really ought to be, but his youth also makes his prone to the occasional child's mistake, as when the food truck he's saved up to buy for him and his sister turns out to be a wreck. Alé and those around him live lives unimaginable to most of the film's viewers, yet the film never becomes a wallow or a tale of woe. In fact, the only thing that keeps Chop Shop from being a really top-notch film of its kind- like the works of the Dardenne brothers- is the spiritual and religious undercurrents of their stories, which tend to give them the feel of hardscrabble Biblical parables. But then, I don't think that's Bahrani's goal, and he's one of the few American filmmakers who has successfully captured the lifestyles of poor immigrants in our large cities. And really, I'd say that's enough. Rating: 7 out of 10.

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