Chop Shop is just your ordinary independent drama about a blue collar hero working five jobs to support his family, pursuing his version of the American dream. Oh, except that he's a 12-year-old living in a makeshift apartment above a chop shop in Queens, and his "family" consists of a teenage sister who should be functioning as a surrogate parent, instead of working against their cause with her reckless behavior. Not to mention that there's nothing "ordinary" about writer-director Ramin Bahrani's sophomore effort, a blistering portrait of the hardscrabble existence of these orphans, playing the hand they've been dealt pretty well, but still suffering their inevitable hardships and compromises. What's really interesting about young Alejandro is the moral principles that guide him. A person in his circumstances would be tempted to steal or break the law in other ways, but Alejandro simply shows a keen understanding of how to work within various under-the-table markets to make whatever money is available to be made. It's all the more tragic, then, when his best efforts still result in failed outcomes, outcomes which illustrate the limitations of a child trying to operate in an adult world. Bahrani's skills as a director are evident not only in the neorealism-inspired atmosphere he creates -- the grit and grime of Queens are palpable without being exaggerated -- but also in his abilities with his non-professional actors. Young Alejandro Polanco appears in nearly every scene of Chop Shop, and never once appears to be acting. Nor does Bahrani try to create additional sympathy for him by making him a saint. He's just a person trying to make it in the world, and because we feel that, we celebrate his victories and bemoan his setbacks along with him -- especially when he's doing everything right and still coming up short.
by Derek Armstrong review