Because the last shot of Ramin Bahrani's "Chop Shop" is as quiet and matter-of-fact as most of the rest of the film, it takes a moment to register as a metaphor. For nearly an hour and a half we have been immersed in the rhythms of daily life in the battered Willets Point section of Queens, and Bahrani's hand-held camera has remained studiously fixed at street level. Now, all of a sudden, it pitches upward to follow a flock of pigeons breaking toward the sky, a shift in perspective that also changes, subtly but unmistakably, our understanding of the movie.
Like its prosaic title or like those homely birds, "Chop Shop," written by Bahrani (who created the 2006 "Man Push Cart") and Bahareh Azimi, dwells mainly in the realm of the literal. Filmed inside shady auto-repair businesses, on bleak overpasses and in vacant lots in the shadow of Shea Stadium, this film has an unsentimental, soulful appreciation of the grace that resides in even the meanest struggle for survival.
When you stop to think about it, the life of Alejandro (Alejandro Polanco) -- known as Ale -- should be cause for despair. A skinny, fast-moving boy a year or so from puberty, he sleeps in a makeshift room above the shop where he works. His main concern, aside from the daily scramble for cash, is his older sister, Isamar (Isamar Gonzales), who seems more passive than her brother and more detached, perhaps self-protectively, from her emotions. Their parents are never seen or mentioned, and school is more an abstract notion than a real possibility.
Ale's plan, equally a childish fantasy and a hardheaded entrepreneurial scheme, is to save enough money to buy a broken-down vending truck and fix it up so he and Isamar can sell hot meals to chop shop workers and customers. Isamar works in a similar business and also sells sex after-hours to drivers who park at the edge of the neighborhood. Ale's desire, all the more acute for remaining unstated, is to rescue her from this fate and also, more generally, to formulate the plausible idea of a secure adult future for the two of them.
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Bahrani does not treat his characters with pity, and they feel very little for themselves. Perhaps this is because they are too young and too focused on the present-tense demands of getting by to dwell on what they don't have. But the film's emotional restraint, while impressive, also feels limiting. Polanco and Gonzales have the wary inscrutability that often characterizes nonprofessional actors, and though Polanco is a lively and likable presence, there are times when his performance is tentative and stiff.
Bahrani was born in the United States and lived for a while in Iran, his parents' native country (and Azimi's), and the influence of recent Iranian cinema on "Chop Shop" is unmistakable. The oblique, naturalistic storytelling, the interest in children and the mingling of documentary and fictional techniques -- these have been hallmarks of the work of Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi, but American filmmakers rarely deploy them with such confidence or effectiveness. "Chop Shop" suggests the potential of such an approach, which has roots in postwar Italian neorealism, to compel an encounter with local reality that is both poetic and clearsighted.
Whether the situation in "Chop Shop" is entirely realistic is another question. I found myself wondering not only about what had happened to Ale and Isamar's parents, but also about the total absence of any adult or institutional concern with these children's lives. The shop owners pay Ale his wages and teach him new skills, but there is a hardness in their dealings with him that struck me as implausible. That may be wishful thinking on my part. Or it may be that I was taken in by the rough surface of this film, seduced into mistaking a subtle, artful fable for the cold, hard facts of life.