Chop Shop

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 August, 2008, 12:00am

Chop Shop

Starring: Alejandro Polanco, Isamar Gonzalez, Rob Sowulski, Carlos Zapata

Director: Ramin Bahrani

The film: Having made his directorial debut - and an award-winning one at that - with Man Push Cart, a story about a Pakistani immigrant running a coffee-and-doughnuts cart in central Manhattan, Ramin Bahrani's mission to cast light on the plight of marginalised New Yorkers continues with Chop Shop.

The story, which revolves around a Latino street orphan's rugged determination to improve his life - and his wayward elder sister's - by toiling endlessly as an apprentice mechanic in one of the Big Apple's grittiest areas, boasts electric performances from an amateur cast.

Like Man Push Cart, which won first-time actor Ahmad Razvi a string of international awards, Chop Shop is a stunning film that reflects the heartbreak of America's disenfranchised urban underclass.

The film's title - slang for a car repair shop specialising in hacking up mostly stolen vehicles and reselling the spare parts - is set in Willets Point, a deteriorating stretch of junk yards and sleazy car repair dealers in an area of Queens known as the Iron Triangle.

It begins with Ale (Alejandro Polanco) getting a job at a garage run by Rob (Rob Sowulski, the shop's real owner playing a version of himself) - a position that requires him to learn certain skills, including priming, repainting and fixing cars being brought in for repairs. But the position also provides him with a temporary home in a small room above the shop floor.

Ale labours conscientiously as he attempts to earn enough money for himself, and for the purchase of an old food service van which his sister Isi (Isamar Gonzalez, right with Polanco) dreams of having.

As Ale's belief in human goodness and kindness is gradually chiselled away by the brutal circumstances around him, a swindle and its subsequent circumstances eventually force him to ditch his attempts to stick to the straight and narrow.

Polanco's stellar turn is supported by equally natural deliveries from the film's other acting neophytes. Reportedly intense rehearsals and Polanco's six-month stint working at Sowulski's garage before shooting began, no doubt helped to instil a sense of realism into their respective roles.

While the acting is crucial to Chop Shop's success, Bahrani also puts in another remarkable directorial effort, unfurling the story in a manner which is gradual, natural and completely devoid of melodramatic twists and turns. Ale's hard luck happens without the interference of writ large villains, going against the grain of more conventional neo-realist dramas. Chop Shop is an innovation from start to end.

The extras: Short segments of rehearsal footage make up the scant bonus features of this release. While hardly a wealth of material to pick from, the footage does allow a look into how the film is put together, especially the way in which the inexperienced cast are gradually eased into their roles (and for Polanco, into car-repairing mode by his on-screen mentor Sowulski). The verdict: Chop Shop is a gritty portrayal of one of society's most desperate urban environments in the world's richest economy.