In the follow-up to his acclaimed 2005 film “Man Push Cart,” Ramin Bahrani returns to the unseen (well, at least on screen) underbelly of New York City with “Chop Shop,” which follows the lives of Alejandro, an orphaned boy who, along with his teenage sister, struggles for survival amidst the junkyards and questionable auto body shops in Willets Point, Queens. The film opened in New York on Wednesday (check out an interview with Bahrani here) once again, the critics applaud.
David Edelstein at New York deems the film “a low-budget vÃ©ritÃ© triumph”: “Chop Shop isn’t so beautiful or artfully sculpted, and you can’t shake it off as just a movie. You want to head out on the 7 train and find this little boy–or someone like him.” In his Toronto 2007 review, Roger Ebert wrote that “Now we have an American film with the raw power of ‘City of God’ or ‘Pixote,’ a film that does something unexpected, and inspired, and brave.” Andrew O’Hehir at Salon compares the film to Bresson’s “Pickpocket” and de Sica’s “The Bicycle Thief,” going on to write “I know, that’s a hell of a lot for a movie by a 32-year-old unknown to live up to, but I haven’t seen an American film in many years that so clearly rates the comparison.” Michael Joshua Rowin at indieWIRE notes that these resemblances aren’t only in stylistic similarities, but also moral ones: “Alejandro… isn’t to be merely pitied, but to be understood as a person with the same aspirations and faults as us all, only under circumstances that make each decision a possible do or die one, allowing little room for error.”
At the New York Times, A.O. Scott points out that the film’s unflinching realism doesn’t obscure a sense of beauty: “there is nonetheless a lyricism at its heart, an unsentimental, soulful appreciation of the grace that resides in even the meanest struggle for survival.” Adds Nathan Lee at the Village Voice:
Bahrani doesn’t omit hardship so much as subsume it within the larger framework of his benevolent sensibility. Chop Shop avoids the pitfalls of romanticism (and miserablism) by keying this empathic touch to the consciousness of Ale and Isa. For them, Willets Point is simply home, and if their ecosystem, precarious as it is, sometimes feels enchanted, that’s because children always transform their surroundings into playgrounds or battlegrounds–arenas of struggle and play.
And two qualifications, from Noel Murray at the Onion AV Club and Nick Schager at Slant. Murray suggests that “All that’s holding Chop Shop back from being a great movie–as opposed to a merely good one–is that there really isn’t much to it.” Schager finds that “Bahrani’s screenplay occasionally feels too scripted for its own good,” and that “the film nonetheless too often fails to get under one’s skin emotionally.”
[Photo: “Chop Shop,” Koch Lorber Films, 2007]