In Ramin Bahrani's second feature, Chop Shop (2007), he again explores life on the margins of the American Dream, this time focusing on Ale (Alejandro Polanco), a tough Dominican street kid, trying to look after himself and his older sister Isamar (Isamar Gonzalez) in a gritty corner of New York City.
The influence of Italian Neorealism is as strong here as in Bahrani's earlier film, Man Push Cart (2005). The opening scene, in which Ale stands with a group of men on the side of a highway hoping to pick up a day's labor, immediately invites comparison to the beginning of Bicycle Thieves (1948), where a large crowd of men vie for the few available jobs offered to them. The New York of Chop Shop has much in common with the Rome of Bicycle Thieves. There's no hint here of the New York in the tourist brochures: no Times Square, no horse-drawn carriages in Central Park. The iconic Manhattan skyline appears only briefly in the opening scene, obscured by smog and foregrounded by rusting fuel tanks. The only enduring hint of New York's grandeur is Shea Stadium glowing in the distance. Like Mussolini's soccer stadium in Bicycle Thieves, Shea Stadium is off limits to Ale and his friend Carlos, and the source of temptation. It is the place where people with money go to enjoy themselves, a place where a poor boy might be tempted to steal a hubcap or a purse. By night the streets of Ale's New York are desolate and dark; by day, dirty and chaotic.
|The Willets Point setting of Chop Shop with Shea Stadium in the background dominating the scene.|
Rather than romanticizing or heroicizing young Ale as a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, latter-day Horatio Alger, the narrative structure of Chop Shop emphasizes the repetitive tedium of the struggle to get by day-to-day, similar to the recurring scenes of Ahmad pulling his cart through the rainy Manhattan streets in Man Push Cart. Ale's attempts at progress, at making a better life for himself and his sister, come to naught in the brutal world that they inhabit. Yet, there is something very heroic in this skinny kid who has taken on the challenges of adulthood without the adult guidance or the experience to succeed. His mentors, such as they are, are tough men who treat Ale, not like the little boy he is, but like someone who needs to pull his own weight in a dog-eat-dog world. One of those mentors is Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi), the protagonist of Man Push Cart. We don't get a lot of detail about how he ended up here, but for those who recognize him from the earlier film, it is clear that Ahmad has fallen a few rungs in his own pursuit of the American Dream and lost some of what was best in himself along the way. No longer a melancholy figure selling coffee and bagels to sleepy midtown office workers, he's become hardened and cynical, making his living as a chop shop operator and part-time pimp.
|Isamar and Ale inspect their newly purchased food truck.|
A huge sign on the side of the stadium seems to be directed specifically at Ale, urging him to "Make Dreams Happen." Ale's dream is a simple enough one: to buy a lunch wagon so that he and his sister can support themselves. He sees the broken-down van with a child's eyes as filled with potential and only needing a little superficial cleaning and painting to make customers want to flock to it. As he and Isamar playfully argue over what color to paint the outside of the truck, it is Ahmad who points out how ludicrous this dream is. In a moment that confirms for the viewer that this is in fact the same Ahmad as in Man Push Cart, he alludes to his past experience in the food cart business, explaining to Ale that the equipment in the truck he's bought is hopelessly deteriorated and that it would cost another $10,000 before it could pass the health inspection. Ahmad doesn't try to soften the blow: he calls Ale stupid for agreeing to buy the truck on an as-is basis and then offers to buy it off him for less than 1/4 of what he paid for it. Eventually we see Ale literally dismantling his dream as he helps Ahmad to strip the truck down for scrap.
The character of Ale calls to mind another Neorealist classic, Shoeshine (1946), and I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Bahrani was influenced by that film's similar treatment of the sad impossibility of innocence and dreams for children in a nation devastated by war and economic hardship. Ale is a child who struggles quixotically to protect and provide for his adored big sister. With a child's imagination, he envisions their stark room above the garage as a real home, a place where there is always plenty of soda pop and microwave popcorn. He has seen enough to knowingly quote the price of a blow-job and offer to buy one for his best friend, but is devastated when he recognizes that the young woman performing that act on a truck driver is his sister. There's no real place for a child in Ale's world, and over the course of the film we see this skinny and industrious kid lose the light in his eyes, and we wonder if it is inevitable that this world will change him in the way that it has changed Ahmad.
There is no happy ending, but Chop Shop ends on an ambiguous note that suggests a reconciliation between Ale and Isamar. The final shot shows pigeons taking off across the sky, and for this viewer at least, Ale is a lot like those pigeons: tough, resilient, adaptable, and capable of moments of grace.
Watch the official trailer here.