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Chop Shop | Review

Junk Yard Dogs: Eye-filling exposé affectionately demonstrates the downside of American Dream.

After peering into a morsel of life that few New Yorkers actually knew exist with his festival fav Man Push Cart, Iranian American filmmaker Ramin Bahrani yet again offers a boundary-pushing portrait and how-to-guide for survival in a cross-section portion of a city where many walks of life intersect. With the same sort of microcosmic vibrancy, original location specific settings and similar age bracket point of views found in recent American independent cinema examples of David Gordon Green’s George Washington and Peter Sollett’s Raising Victor Vargas, this Cannes’ Director’s Fortnight selection gets in the mindset, the daily beat of a world that is unfamiliar, tragic and oddly comforting all at once. For those who thought that the popcorn bio interpretation found in The Pursuit of Happyness gave new meaning to what it is to struggle in this life, Chop Shop has even more to say upon the matter. Here hustling and surviving in a country, where for the majority, the American Dream is not about overindulgence but instead just being able to have a safe place to sleep at night and enough food to share with the people or person you love most.

Many become anxious over breached child labor laws overseas and upon further examination, perhaps we should be just as concerned for what is occurring in our own backyards, or in this case, scrap metal and car junkyards. Striving for a doctrine that inhales and exhales pragmatism and due to a frame composition and hand-held aesthetic that is absorbing and not distracting, with the assurance of a seasoned auteur, Bahrani guides a young non-actor into a docu-fiction territory and it takes all but five minutes for the tender aged, young protag played by Alejandro Polanco to bluff the viewer into believing that every facet of this fictionalized tale is absolute truth.

The story of a Latino street kid with an unknown past and a future full of question marks is offered with no back-story and a lack of explanations as to why this child finds himself in such a dead-end place that merges trade, commerce, community under little legality. Known as Ale, the child acts many times his age when he takes in his sister like a stray cat off the street. How and when they attain their shared goal for the future becomes the main components for what takes place in front of the camera – but the driving point to this narrative is the relationship the hold in this crazy system, one that is built on the backs of immigrant workers.

While Bahrani thankfully never attempts to moralize his tale, the reference point he empathically displays is that this end of the world landscape is oddly adjacent to a place where the rich come out to play. Home to the NY Mets, Shea Stadium tells all visitors who come, that this is a place where dreams come true. The irony comments on the absurdity of the situation – where grown adults, and chop shop owners are oblivious and find a normalcy in their hiring practices.

Apart from the stunningly rich and texturized locale that is equally atmospheric in detail in both its light of day and nocturne settings, what will draw the viewer’s attention is that after exploring the day in and day out nature of the protagonist there is this complex relationship between brother and sister that discusses resolve and forgiveness without the normal film narrative mechanics. An equally interesting facet to the character is that though he carries a toughened external layer, he still manages to keep the child alive in him – and this is where his hope for a better outcome.

It’s hard to fathom that connections can be made in a place that on the surface announces misery, but this compact study that looks for no easy way out with no film climaxes and no reversal of fortunes is a gem feature to watch for somewhere in this or next year’s calendar year.

May 21st 2007, Cannes film Festival Director’s Fortnight Section.

84 minutes.

Rating 4 stars

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Eric Lavallée is the founder, CEO, editor-in-chief, film journalist, and critic at IONCINEMA.com, established in 2000. A regular at Sundance, Cannes, and Venice, Eric holds a BFA in film studies from the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema. In 2013, he served on the narrative competition jury at the SXSW Film Festival. He was an associate producer on Mark Jackson’s "This Teacher" (2018 LA Film Festival, 2018 BFI London). In 2022, he was a New Flesh Juror for Best First Feature at the Fantasia International Film Festival. Current top films for 2023 include The Zone of Interest (Glazer), Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell (Pham Thien An), Totem (Lila Avilés), La Chimera (Alice Rohrwacher), All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt (Raven Jackson).

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