Chop Shop is probably the least of Iranian-American director Ramin Bahrani’s first three films. Of course, being the worst Bahrani feature film at this point is kind of like being the dumbest Nobel winning chemist – the company is pretty lofty. The first paragraph of this review is probably the only bad thing I can say about the movie. After all, between this film, Goodbye Solo and Man Push Cart - SOMEBODY had to finish last. Even in its bronze medal status, Chop Shop is a demonstration of Bahrani’s phenomenal gift for capturing life as it is lived by people just like us – even if we would never pay them notice otherwise. Of all American directors, he – in just three major features (major being getting proper releases – not big ones) – is turning out to be the natural, creating realism with an almost offhand sort of ease.
This film centers around Alejandro, or Ale, a 12-year old apparent orphan, working by his wits to get by. There are no parents, just him and his 16-year old sister. They live in a room inside a local auto mechanic’s shop. During the day, Ale is trying to keep them afloat with various sorts of schemes. He steals hubcaps, he resells candy on the subway. In his own way – he could be a character out of Oliver Twist or something. He has certainly had to grow up quickly. Indeed, a scene where he scolds his sister for leaving bottles around is striking – it shows a toughness in the kid that belies his kid-ness. He is the man of whatever house they have put together. Even at this age – you get a sense of the stakes that he is facing. He dreams of owning a taco truck – not one of the hipster food trucks I talk about incessantly, but just one of those stands you pass by in any city.
In a way describing the plot is useless, because the triumph of this movie – much as in with Man Push Cart - is how Bahrani establishes a sense of time and place. With shots and editing that are almost completely invisible – Bahrani effortlessly shows exactly how Ale and his cohorts get by. We see encounters, we see how a young woman might choose to make additional income, and it all makes sense. It’s not punched up. We get involved in Ale’s life – not so much as a rooting interest as almost a documentary viewer. The performances by the actors are so natural and unaffected that it feels like we are watching life unfold, and the artifice of the “movie” go away. Yes, there is a plot and Ale’s dreams and his own approach to getting by are all challenged. However, it never feels like plot machinery – that is always the case with Bahrani – we are looking on these lives. It is so specific – that if we did not see the Chrysler Building in the background – it could be a documentary of another civilization. In a sense though, it IS – a view of a world white collar world just doesn’t see. Bahrani sees this world and these people with such clarity and love. It is a thrill to see a filmmaker who is destined for true “people will remember him” greatness in his youth. I can’t wait for what he will give us next.