Chop Shop

Chop Shop

Isamar Gonzales doesn’t care if Alejandro Polaco knows she ate all the Rice Krispies.

(2007) Drama (Koch Lorber) Alejandro Polanco, Isamar Gonzales, Carlos Zapata, Ahmad Razvi, Rob Sowulski, Anthony Felton, Evelisse “Lilah” Ortiz, Michael “Gringo” Nieto, Carlos Ayala, Laura Patalano, Nick Jasprizza, Nick Bentley. Directed by Ramin Bahrani


 It’s a street like so many others around the world. Auto repair places cheek by jowl with illegal chop shops; pushcarts selling deep-fried goodies from native countries. Garbage lines the streets. There are no sidewalks and children play in the junk yards as if they were playgrounds. This could be a backwater third world country, but it’s not; it’s Willets Point in Queens.

Ale (Polanco), age 12, and Isa (Gonzales), age 16, live on their own on this very street. The owner of an auto body shop (Sowulski) has rented a room in the back to them with a couple of cots to sleep on. They are on their own and have nothing. She works in a food truck by day and sells her body to truckers by night.

He is a budding entrepreneur, selling stolen hubcaps to shop owners and M&Ms on the subway platform. He dreams of buying a lunch truck and fixing it up, selling hot meals to the many workers in the local shops. He is very much the man of the house; Isa is pragmatic but frail.

And that’s the plot. All of it. Oh, there are some further details but while none of them shake the room with thunder, they are best experienced just like life – as they come. Bahrani, whose debut Man Push Cart was a critical darling, excels at taking slices of life from places we generally don’t get to see and almost compels us to watch.

He is a worthy heir to Vittorio De Sica, the Italian auteur of The Bicycle Thief and Umberto D. I can’t really say for certain how realistic his portrayal of Willets Point is, but it feels that way. He used a lot of people in the neighborhood, disguising his production as a documentary so that the performances were more naturalistic although of course these hidden performances vary.

Both of the juvenile leads, however, acquit themselves magnificently, particularly Polanco. He plays a savvy little street hustler and apparently that’s a role very different than his own personality. There’s a toughness to him that sometimes breaks, revealing the very vulnerable boy beneath the veneer. The chemistry between him and Gonzales seems genuine (they attend the same school and Gonzales is close friends with Polanco’s sister). Gonzales has some tough scenes – there are no overt sex scenes but she has to play a young girl playing at being a woman; some of the scenes with Gonzales are very moving and she leaves an indelible impression.

Some of the other performances are less successful but it’s hard to tell who is acting and who’s being themselves. Ultimately it’s difficult to assess a lot of the roles because of that factor; let’s just say that I found some people convincing and some not so much. That’s only how they affected me however. Other opinions may vary – and have a bit more insight than mine.

This isn’t a movie for everyone. There are no happy endings (although the ending does have a grace not that leads to a feeling of hope overall) and no dramatic epiphanies. It ‘s just like life; things happens and life goes on. It’s not always pretty but it’s real and sometimes, that helps us navigate our way through our own Willets Points.

WHY RENT THIS: Devastating performances by Polanco and Gonzales. Has an air of realism that can’t be matched. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not all of the amateur actors come through. May be too intense for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality, adult themes, a little bit of violence and plenty of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The auto shop that Isa and Ale bunk in is actually owned by actor Rob Sowulski who plays the owner and the work that Ale does in it is real (he got paid by Sowulski for the work and by the producers for his acting). To prepare for the role, Polanco worked for Sowulski in the shop for six months before filming began.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Rehearsals for eight of the scenes in the film are shown.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $221,227 on an unreported production budget; it’s possible that the film broke even although not likely.



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