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By KJ Doughton | April 15, 2008

“Chop Shop” is set in Queens, New York, but it might as well exist on Mars. The Iron Triangle of Willets Point – its 20 block cluster of auto shops welded together by rust, graffiti, and twisted scrap metal – provides a fascinating, seldom-seen backdrop for Ramin Bahrani’s film. Most Hollywood productions are cast in sickeningly pristine Utopias, with friendly backyard dogs yelping on cue while perfectly manicured lawns grow out front. But Bahrani, the Iranian-American indie filmmaker behind 2006’s “Man Push Cart,” knows better.

“Man Push Cart” followed an immigrant street vendor during his pre-dawn coffee-selling routine in Manhattan (Ahmad Razvi, the handsome, cart-pushing lead from that film, also lends a support appearance to “Chop Shop”). Bahrani’s vivid first movie reminded us of the thousands of virtually invisible street-sweepers, cart-vendors, and magazine-stand proprietors forming the heart of New York. For every Donald Trump firing apprentices from the cushy confines of some high rise office, there are scads of anonymous souls on the pavement below, struggling to make ends meet by hawking porno tapes or dropping off newspaper bundles.

In “Chop Shop,” Bahrani shines a light onto another forgotten subculture of urban America. We meet 12-year old Alejandro, an observant, whip-smart Hispanic orphan whose past is never clarified or explained. In need of housing, he wanders amidst the Iron Triangle’s cluttered, car-choked streets, where muscular, tattooed laborers apply wax, dismantle hub caps, and replace windshields. Alejandro rents a primitive, plywood-constructed loft inside an auto-strewn garage. His gruff landlord also offers Alejandro some under-the-table cash for running odd jobs at the grease-streaked body-shop enterprise.

The immensely likeable Alejandro immediately earns viewers’ sympathies. He treats his newfound loft as a lavish sanctuary, treasuring its mini-refrigerator full of sodas and its popcorn-popping microwave oven. There’s no self-pity or loneliness in this determined pre-teen, even after he slams and locks the chop shop’s creaky tin gate each night before retiring to bed in isolation.

Alejandro’s life is complicated by the appearance of Isamar, his shapely older sister, who moves into the already-cramped loft. As with Alejandro, audiences are left to do their own subjective guesswork and fill in her history. Bahrani doesn’t spoon-feed details, other than to show an early scene of Alejandro attempting to call Isamar, whom he learns is living in a “safe house.” This subtle touch suggests a dismal family life. Was abuse involved? Molestation? Drugs? It’s also heartbreaking to observe the wide-eyed younger brother learning where his mysterious sister acquires her extra money, and why she stays out so late.

Like Bahrani’s previous movie, “Chop Shop” provides little narrative thrust. The bare-bones plot involves ambitious Alejandro pursuing his dream to purchase a food-vending truck, and become a self-sufficient entrepreneur. Viewers might sense, however, that the director is more concerned with conjuring up accurate atmospherics and a sense of truth. “Chop Shop” feels absolutely real, and its ability to immerse us so thoroughly into Alejandro’s metal, rubber, and glass-encased universe transcends conventional plot trappings.

“Chop Shop” does a brilliant job of placing us inside the massive, metallic ant colony of Willets Point. So densely packed are the rubber tires, hydraulic jacks, and engine blocks that we have no hint that anything exists beyond. Only the nearby Shea Stadium – with its bright lights and cheering baseball crowds – acts as any kind of reference point to the outside world. Bahrani also educates viewers as to how the chop shop routine works. Prospective car-modification customers drive their vehicles through the center of this sprawling stretch of garages, while enthusiastic sales reps approach windows and make offers. It’s reminiscent of hungry diners placing orders at a fast-food drive though. Before taking in “Chop Shop,” I had no idea the Iron Triangle even existed.

Thanks to Bahrani, now I know. A master at immersing us in slice-of-life scenarios, the director also educates us to the nooks and crannies of society that most people overlook. Throw him into a jean-making factory, a peep-show emporium, or a rural dairy farm, and this atmosphere-inducing talent would likely bring these unseen settings to haunting life. Hell – he could probably find a pulse in the seemingly snooze-inducing routine of a tax accountant.

Audience-pleasing wrap-ups and exposition, however, are not Bahrani’s forte. I admired the equally realistic mood of “Man Push Cart,” but became frustrated with the multitude of unanswered questions raised. In revealing so little about its troubled cart-pusher, the film made me restless. “Chop Shop” borrows many of that film’s stylistic and structural accents, but comes across as more immediate and focused. Again, the director refuses to tie up his loose ends with formula resolutions. This time around, however, the ambiguous fates awaiting Alejandro and Isamar are resonant and unforgettable.

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