It is a mark of Ramin Bahrani’s integrity that his new film does more than transport you to an unexpected world, as movies often claim to do. Chop Shop specifies how it gets you there: by a hike along an elevated section of New York City highway and a ride on the subway’s G line.
This attention to infrastructure is only fitting, given the setting to which you’re delivered. Chop Shop was shot in the Willets Point section of Queens: the Iron Triangle, as it’s called, where rows of auto body shops stand shoulder to shoulder along the almost-paved streets behind Shea Stadium, home of the New York Mets. In August (when Chop Shop was filmed) the heat-struck road is choked with two solid lanes of cars inching their way into one- and two-story garages that stretch into the distance as far as the eye can see. So it seems, anyway, given the choice of lens that cinematographer Michael Simmonds sometimes makes for establishing shots, to compress the factual into the mind-boggling. But, again, it’s a mark of integrity that the film doesn’t often add such visual emphasis. It doesn’t need to. Straight-on views of corrugated metal gates and flaking Dumpsters, pools of wastewater and heaps of tires, the highway bridge and elevated train and jet airliners roaring overhead give you something that’s as essential to the movies as any flight of fantasy: the eloquence of the real.
By stages, along the highway bridge and through the subway tunnel, Chop Shop brings into the Iron Triangle a slightly fictionalized element: 12-year-old Ale (Alejandro Polanco), a spindly, T-shirted bundle of self-assurance who has received no schooling but figures he knows everything anyhow. Ale is sufficiently wised-up to scam a day-labor contractor into paying him to go away. He understands how to hawk candy bars successfully in the subway, without even a pretense of raising money for a charity. Most promising of all, he’s figured out how to obtain a position with Rob, the owner of a body shop (played by Rob Sowulski, the owner of the garage where Chop Shop was filmed). In exchange for walking down the middle of the street to wave customers into Rob’s shop–plus some work sanding and priming, repairing side-view mirrors, sweeping and locking up–Ale gets a cash salary and permission to live in an upstairs room. This housing is no more than a box of unfinished plywood, furnished with a platform bed, a microwave oven and a single window with a view onto the shop floor below. To Ale, though, it’s the place where he can bring his 16-year-old sister, Isamar (Isamar Gonzales), and make a home.
How did these kids get loose on the street? Where is the rest of their family? The screenplay, written by Bahrani with Bahareh Azimi, leaves the answers to such questions obscure, preferring to adopt a present-tense, matter-of-fact worldview much like Ale’s. Incidents of low drama abound–a disillusionment, a quarrel, a plan gone wrong–but no reversals beyond what you’d expect of an ordinary day or night in Queens. The rhythm is similarly mundane, in the best sense. Chop Shop is the kind of movie that doesn’t cut to an image of people boarding a subway car but instead makes its characters stand on the platform, waiting for the train to emerge from the tunnel and pull to a stop. Despite the astonishment of the setting–do Mets fans suspect this place exists?–the film depends for its effect on Bahrani’s taking time to observe humble details and emotional nuances. He pauses for a close-up of a blue flip-flop sandal as it floats down the street during a rainstorm. He trains his hand-held camera on Ale and Isamar in their room and lets them say nothing for a long time, except for jocular insults that of course say everything.