(a film review by Mark R. Leeper)

CAPSULE: Life on the streets of Queens, New York, is a hand-to-mouth existence for a twelve-year-old Latino and his sister. The camera seems simply to follow young Alejandro around and show us the story of his life and his relationship with his older sister with whom he shares a plywood-clad room over the title auto body shop. Made on a very small budget, this film is actors in front of a camera telling a story that seems very real. The low-key drama has a real feel for the texture of life in the underbelly of Queens. Ramin Bahrani (of MAN PUSH CART) directs and co-authored the script. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10

This review contains minor plot spoilers.

Using no music, little cinematic artifice and an almost documentary style, we are ushered into to the world of Alejandro. Ale (played by Alejandro Polanco) is a Puerto Rican boy about twelve surviving by doing whatever he can. He lives in an auto bodywork shop in Queens. Roger Ebert's review informs me that this area is the "Valley of Ashes" that F. Scott Fitzgerald describes us in THE GREAT GATSBY. It has not greatly improved over the years. Now it is the kind of dead end trap that we think of as being in the Third World.

Ale goes from one small job to the next. He works at the shop and tries to drag in customers; he does day labor for construction; he steals hubcaps; he hawks illegal DVDs; he sells candy on the subway. When he does the latter he announces to the subway car that he is NOT selling for a basketball team. In fact he does not go to school at all. We simply follow Ale around with a handheld camera and watch as he gets himself in and out of trouble. Ale's sixteen-year old sister is Isamar played by Isamar Gonzales. The five major actors all use their real first names.

Isamar has just run away from a safe house and is now living with Ale above the chop shop in a room with plywood walls and apparently one small bed. Together the two of them banter like brothers and sisters do anywhere. Their dream is to own a taco and beans truck. Isamar says it should have her name painted on the side, Ale insists it should have his name. Isamar cooks and cleans the tiny room, Ale hustles earning what money comes in. He and his friends talk in a disarmingly normal way about baseball and hookers. Trouble begins as the boys watch the hookers ply their trade on the ugly streets and Ale thinks he sees Isamar in a truck cab. Now the snack truck means to him not just an easier living, it is also how he hopes to rescue his sister from prostitution.

Ramin Bahrani is an Iranian-American filmmaker whose film MAN PUSH CART was well-received on the film festival circuit. In this follow-up film, he uses a style with a real feel of authenticity. Before the plot takes hold one might almost think this was a documentary. Yet eventually, as with THE BICYCLE THIEF, the scenes start adding up to a poignant plot. Alejandro Polanco has a lot of personality that holds this very low-key drama together as the story wends it way to a melancholy and inconclusive conclusion.

The setting may be New York, but it could be Africa or Central America. And the story could be from post-war Italy with filmmakers like Vittoria De Sica. I rate CHOP SHOP a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.

Film Credits:

					Mark R. Leeper
					Copyright 2008 Mark R. Leeper