July 17, 2008
Reviewer: James van Maanen
Rating (out of 5): ***½
Just as it surprised me that Under the Same Moon (La Misma Luna) was not as popular as it ought to have been with mainstream audiences, so it is with Chop Shop and independent film lovers. Both films deal with a young protagonist on a quest, who must somehow make America help him achieve his goal. The former is mainstream feel-good, the latter is, if not exactly feel-bad, certainly something this side of an "upper." So, how is it that an energetic, intelligent, funny and moving little film like Chop Shop did not reach more of its target crowd?
Ramin Bahrani's film is a rather large step up professionally and commercially from his earlier Man Push Cart - which was interesting and generally well done but suffered from having a main character who was hugely uncommunicative: a truthful possibility, perhaps, but one that tends to push audiences away. There's no chance of that happening with Chop Shop, as its lead character Ale, played wonderfully by Alejandro Polanco, has charm, energy, and smarts to spare. What he does not have is the adult guidance that would come from being in a caring family situation, and that is what makes all the difference to his success or failure in our world. He has his older sister (good work by Isamar Gonzales) who is loving but generally unhelpful. The people around Ale range from helpful to not, caring to unconcerned, and all this rings particularly true. So Ale must use everything at his disposal to succeed.
The ambience of the particular Queens, NY, neighborhood in which Bahrani filmed comes through with clarity and truth, and his script is naturalistic and mostly free from over-exposition. Performances are excellent all around, and the director/co-writer (with Bahareh Azimi) gives his film a documentary feel but with a better script--one that has been imagined truthfully and inclusively, concerning all its characters. I suspect that, because its subject sounds depressing, Chop Shop went begging. If you're a film fan willing to take the risk, you won't come away depressed because the movie is too fast-moving and interesting to result in that. Instead, you'll be entertained, jostled, amused, moved and, yeah, educated--without ever feeling that you're back in school.
Posted by cphillips at July 17, 2008 12:35 PM