Aggressive optimism from the streets

Chop Shop
United States, 2008

Directed By: Ramin Bahrani
Written By: Ramin Bahrani, Bahareh Azimi
Starring: Alejandro Polanco, Isamar Gonzales
Running Time: 85 minutes
Not Rated
4 out of 5 stars

It is, unsurprisingly, in vogue to hate America these days. The Bush administration, regardless of what you think of them, has made a shipwreck of US foreign policy, and our international reputation is in tatters. Hollywood’s response has been anti-Bush documentaries and anti-Iraq diatribes, to the tune of crickets at the box office. As an American and a film buff, I’m just so very tired of it all. How refreshing, then, to stumble upon a film that reminds you of why America is great, a film populated by characters that could not succeed as they do anywhere else. 

Director Ramin Bahrani, I’m certain, would have never anticipated a review of Chop Shop beginning with a paragraph bemoaning the state of US foreign affairs. His minimal, cinéma vérité observation of two Latino street kids set amidst a sprawling labyrinth of auto-body repair shops on the outskirts of Queens has nothing to do with politics, at least superficially. But Ale, a street smart 12 year old with an entrepreneurial spirit that would put Richard Branson to shame, possesses an aggressive optimism that is nothing if not quintessentially American. He and his sister have no parents, no steady source of income, and no permanent home. They’re temporarily working at and living above an auto-body shop in a space that doesn’t resemble a bedroom so much as a plywood box. 16 year old Isamar, Ale’s elder in age only, is quick to point out how small it is. “It’s mad big,” Ale quips with a smile. Practically “a country club,” he adds, pointing to the 3 foot high mini-fridge.

After the crowded bustle of the day, Ale and Isamar sit on their shared bed and dream big dreams. Ale knows where they can get a used kitchen truck for cheap, and they playfully argue about what color they’ll paint it and who’s name will go first on the marquee. He’ll do the bodywork and she’ll cook and drive, their own catering business on wheels. It’s a wonderful, touching scene, brought to life by the understated performances of Alejandro Polanco and Isamar Gonzales (Bahrani has cast non-actors who aren’t playing parts, but themselves, hence why the characters share their actors’ names). Their grand hopes would seem foolish elsewhere, but not here, the land of the American dream, where anyone can become anything they want to be if they work hard enough.

And Ale works hard for the money. He could be the poster boy for capitalism, pursuing any and all means of gainful employment. He brags on his size to a contractor—“You need someone to fit in the crawlspaces”; he sells candy on the subway with the slick confidence of a snake oil salesman; and he hawks bootleg DVDs to anyone who will look twice—“One for five, two for eight.” He also sweats it out in the auto-body trenches, a kind of automotive red light district where Johns cruise the strip and each chop shop tries to snag their business before the others can. Ale, all four feet of him, goes toe to toe with the other shops, slipping in between six-foot mechanics and snagging customers from under their noses for his boss, Rob (played by another non-actor, Rob Sowulski). The $4500 needed for the truck seems within reach given Ale’s entrepreneurial vengeance.

The thing with dreams, however, is they need hope to stay alive. Ale’s hope is that he and his sister will build a better life together, and the kitchen truck is the physical representation of that hope. When a painful secret comes between them, that hope (and the truck itself) begins to die piece by piece. The antithesis of hope is desperation, and Ale spirals downward in ever deeper arcs, first stealing hubcaps, then cannibalizing stolen cars for parts, and finally purse-snatching in broad daylight.

Hope is the fuel of life, and in spite of its faults (which are legion), America is the great facilitator of hope. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine Ale, transported to a country with an oppressive religious state, going from purse snatching to strapping a bomb to his chest. Religious extremism succeeds where hope and purpose are lost: when you have nothing to live for, the hollow purpose of a martyr’s death becomes very, very attractive.

But Ale doesn’t live in Afghanistan, and in America hope springs eternal. Secrets, no matter how damaging, can be conquered, and the film leaves us with Ale’s irrepressible smile, imagining what the future might hold. Chop Shop is a simple, graceful film about a brother and sister trying to survive. It is an unobtrusive celebration of the pursuit of the American dream, and a pleasant reminder that despite the current state of affairs, this melting pot of a country we live in can still be great at times.

Chop Shop is currently playing at the Circle Cinema. Call 918-592-FILM for showtimes.

About the Author:
Evan Derrick loves movies, loves talking about movies, and even makes them from time to time. In the rare moment when movies aren’t consuming his grey matter, he enjoys eating grilled cheese sandwiches, playing with his baby daughter, and pretending to be the senior editor for Use the Tulsa Today search feature to read previous reviews by this author.