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Chop Shop

1 rating: -3.0
A movie directed by Ramin Bahrani

Set in Willet's Point, an industrial sprawl of auto repair shops and junkyards in outer New York City, CHOP SHOP tells the story of 12-year-old Alejandro (Alejandro Polanco), an orphan living a hardscrabble existence in the "Iron Triangle." … see full wiki

Director: Ramin Bahrani
Genre: Drama
Release Date: 2007
MPAA Rating: Unrated
1 review about Chop Shop

An Indi Bio-Pic that never quite makes it in any direction

  • Nov 11, 2008
Pros: Alejandro Polanco

Cons: All other actors, pacing, inconsistent story

The Bottom Line: The strength of the main actor makes it a two star.  I cannot recommend it though.  If the strength of one actor/character is enough, the film will not totally disappoint.

Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie''s plot.

About 2 years ago, I got into a Netflix “category.”  You won’t find it listed anywhere but it is independent (usually) films carried entirely by prepubescent children (I will list them in a comment if anyone is interested).  There was only one I hated, a couple that were decent, the rest turned out to be brilliant in one way or another.  Chop Shop is a character study put on the shoulders of Alejandro Polanco (Ale).  He pulls off the character but cannot carry an inconsistent story since there is really nowhere to put it down.  This one falls into the second category, barely.
Ale lives among the extra-legal Hispanic community in Queens.  He spends nearly every waking minute “working.”  He sells candy on subways, he sells stolen DVDs, he steals car parts and sells those.  He learns from those around him how to, dismantle, prime and paint cars.  He does this in order to buy a mobile food truck so he and his sister Isamar (Isamar Gonzales) can rise above their lives that are just one step from the street.  Two things complicate and drive this story: the sister is older, ungrateful, and withholds money despite how hard her 12 year old brother works, and the idea of a dream deflated.

When an independent movie focuses on one fairly simple notion, in this case the Horatio Alger story of poor boy tries to make good, it is easy to explain.  The question, obviously, is whether it is any good.  All of Alger’s books were the same, only the boy’s names changed (always boys).  Does auteur Ramin Bahani tell a new story, an old story in a better way, or offer a view that really hits heart or gut?
No.  And this is unfortunate.

Mr. Polanco is fantastic.  He isn’t an actor, he is a kid.  When he gets excited by something, he is animated and has the squeaky voice kids get when they are truly excited.  The problem is that no one else is at all comfortable on that end of the camera.  This is particularly true of Ms. Gonzales.  She learned her lines but that is it.  Someone speaks to her, she pauses, then says her line in the flattest possible way.  In a scene lasting more than about ten lines, her inabilities weigh on Mr. Polanco and his otherwise reliable abilities get flattened too.  In order for the story to go from idea to emotional appeal, Mr. Polanco needed an equal.  This did not happen.

In general, the flat affect is true for anyone else Ale has to talk to.  When he works silently with the men in this other world that houses him, Ale is as physically fantastic (which is helpful since he says less and less as the film continues).  He balances being 12 with the self-imposed requirement of a maturity of someone three times that age.  The balance is cliché, but not all clichés are bad things: it tugs a bit at the strings because you see a child without a childhood, but you also see a child with the ability to do and be so independent that it is a balance of sadness with admiration.

How the film tries to handle the dream deflated is what kills it.  The film is little more than an ad hoc biography; if it had stayed like that it might have had a better chance at success.  Instead, there is an attempt to add some last minute imagery and symbolism that comes out of nowhere.  This is how the film ends.  It is the same thing as reading a portion of someone’s life as a newspaper article and suddenly bringing in a crap poet to write the last two lines.
Alejandro Polanco is strong enough for me not to give the film one star, but I cannot recommend it. 


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