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In the grand tradition of The 400 Blows, Salaam Bombay!, and The Bicycle Thief comes Chop Shop, a new American neorealist drama.


Polanco works the Chop Shop in Queens
Polanco works the Chop Shop in Queens

It seems like there are dozens of movies about kids without parents on the fringes of society. Many are Italian neorealist movies. There’s one set in post-war Hungary (Somewhere in Europe) with a gang of kids who threaten a harmless old man, and there’s one that Martin Scorsese recommended (Paisan) with a black American soldier looking after a ragtag Italian orphan.

Within the genre, it’s surprising how good most of the films are. Maybe that’s because everyone can sympathize with a hungry child; or maybe it’s because a solitary child forces us to think about right and wrong in a new way. Morality can be a gray area. Everyone can see the lighter shade of gray when a child steals bread or shoes, and we can all see the darker shade of gray when he steals a typewriter or a set of hubcaps, or when throws rocks at a helpless old man. And everyone can shed a bittersweet tear when that child finds some small measure of hope and joy in some pathetic image that nevertheless symbolizes beauty for him.

Set in the present and filmed in Queens, New York, Chop Shop is a worthy entry into the genre.

Chop Shops

Director Ramin Bahrani explains, “Willet’s Point, Queens, is twenty blocks of junkyards, dumping grounds and row upon row of auto-body repair shops.” But perhaps the most interesting feature of the neighborhood is Shea Stadium. It can be seen in the background almost all the time, and you have to wonder whether those Mets fans even know this little street exists.

Alejandro (Aleh, for short) has a sister but no parents. He’s about 11 years old, and he knows how to hustle. He haunts the movie’s side street where several body shops have hung their signs. Customers drive in and boys like Aleh try to guide them to their shop for the business.

Aleh (Alejandro Polanco) has hooked up with Rob (Rob Sowulski) who lets him sleep up in the old office above the garage, and who has an arrangement with a woman from the neighborhood who cooks. Aleh has some board with his room. On top of that, Aleh gets paid — pretty well for an 11-year old — in cash at the end of each day. It’s a cash economy in these streets. If you want to know the pedigree of your auto parts, then you’re in the wrong neighborhood.

Audacity of Hope

Aleh is able to bring his 16-year-old sister Isamar (played by Isamar Gonzales) to live with him. It’s good that they can be together, since they only have each other. She works days in a lunch wagon. But really, for a girl her age, there’s only one well paying job in the neighborhood, and it’s not cooking. When Aleh discovers his sister’s night job, it devastates him, at least for a day or so. After a day of stewing, he finally approaches her at work in the lunch wagon and gives her a tip jar, “in case you need extra money.”

Still, as mean as these streets seem, there is hope. Aleh and Isamar dream of saving up enough cash to buy their own lunch wagon. Aleh knows how to do the body work and Isamar knows how to cook. If they can save up 4,500 bucks, they can buy the rusty old junker that one of the neighboring body shops has sitting around.

And through the eyes of children who don’t know anything else, the neighborhood can be magical, too. The stadium looms over the neighborhood like a civic monument, and when the Mets play, Aleh can stand across the parking lot and see second base. Even when he’s not watching the game, he can hear the roar of the crowd on game day, clearer than traffic driving by or a jet flying overhead.

There are all sorts of teachers in the neighborhood. One friend hires Aleh to help disassemble a nice-looking Volvo overnight. Another friend shows Aleh how to lure the pigeons for a little nature show.

Springing Eternal

With this film — in fact, with any film in the genre — it’s practically guaranteed that you, the paying audience, have a much better life than what’s depicted on the screen. While these stories may make you appreciate how good your own life is, they don’t try to do it with guilt, but rather with a celebration of human potential, of the resilience of childhood, and of the uncomplicated, naïve joy of life.

That’s not to say that Chop Shop — or any movies in the genre — are all joy and happiness. Only that they illustrate the human capacity — or at least a child’s capacity — for love and delight, even in the worst of circumstances.