Ebertfest preview: Chop Shop

Directed by Rahmin Bahrani. February 2007, USA. Unrated: 84 min.

(Originally published in buzz magazine on 4/12/2009)

Winner of prizes at the Independent Spirit Awards and the Riga International Film Forum and rated a certified-fresh 96% on RottenTomatoes, Chop Shop is North Carolina native Ramin Bahrani’s fourth project as a writer-director. The indie film, which received a four-star rating from Roger Ebert, stars Alejandro Polanco as Ale, as 12-year-old street orphan who scores money wherever he can as a petty thief, hustler and auto body shop worker. The problems he and his 16-year-old sister face on a daily basis are unthinkable for most of us; each day brings a new struggle to scrape by a living.

With gritty cinematography a la City of God (2002), Bahrani demonstrates how pockets of third world environments exist even in places like Queens, New York. We see how stuck he is in a little urban world wherein a vicious cycle of poverty subjects him to violence at the hands of grown men. He steals purses, spray paints car parts and looks after his sister out of necessity, with little chance of escaping his conditions. The trailer shows a scene where Ale peddles candy bars in public transit. His sales pitch sums up his predicament concisely:

“Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen. Sorry for the interruption . . . [I’m not] here selling candy for no school basketball team. In fact, I don’t even go to school, and if you want me back in school, today I got candy for you.”

Ebert praised the level of detail that sells Chop Shop’s authenticity.

“Two things American movies hardly ever get right are children and work,” he wrote. “Chop Shop exhibits a rare and intimate acquaintanceship with both.”

The film looks to be a must-see for anyone frustrated with Hollywood fakery and willful ignorance of the very poor.