Movie Review By : Bryan Fox / Blogger
Chop Shop is a gritty peek into the life of Alejandro, an 11-year old orphan living above the garage in which he works in the shadows of Shea Stadium in Flushing, Queens. At the outset of the film, Ale is reunited with Isamar, his 16-year old sister, who comes to live with him in the shop and for whom he has to provide. A child living in an adult’s world without any positive guidance, Ale sells candy on subway trains with his lone friend, Carlos, rips hubcaps off of cars in the Shea Stadium parking lot for resale to shopowners on the street where he lives, and even resorts to the occasional purse-snatching to get by. His sister works in a lunch truck and, much to Ale’s chagrin, turns tricks for Johns in parked cars under cover of night. There is something raw and painful about thrusting children into adult roles and leaving them there to fend for themselves, and the film unfolds in a nightmarish dystopian Third World haze of car exhaust and sizzling summer sun. Except that it is happening in New York City. Ale has a bar fridge full of malt liquor, drinks coffee in the morning, eats microwave popcorn at night. It’s as though the Land of Lost Boys has come home to roost in the shadows of the Whitestone Expressway.
The plot unfolds around Alè and Isamara’s daily struggle to survive, and the former’s unexplained ‘grand plan’ to buy a lunch truck from which they can sell food and eke out a better life. Sadly, there is no mention of why the one aim of an 11-year old and his 16-year old sister is to buy a lunch truck when neither of them can cook, and neither of them can drive. There is also no back story given, and one might help. It is understandable that a kid growing up as an orphan has to make due for himself at a very early age, but this does not explain why said orphan is treated by the adults around him like one of their own – it is, very unintentionally, quite funny. The owner of the chop shop, the workers in the other shops on the street, the customers – everyone acts like Alejandro is a man, when clearly he not. Realistic might be someone trying to take him in or care for him. Realistic wouldn’t really be putting him up in a room above the garage, paying him cash each week, and expecting him to act twice his age, as his boss and the other characters do. When he finally manages to save up the money to buy his lunch truck, he is swindled into a bad purchase – perhaps by the only character in the entire film who treats him as an adult in this environment would.
I wanted to like this movie, but in the end, it gave me little reason to do so. Perhaps it’s bad to hate on an 11-year old actor, but Polanco’s acting range evokes Phil Hartman portraying Frankenstein in an old SNL sketch, and Gonzales is, if anything, considerably worse. Many of the lines are garbled so poorly as to be unintelligible – I almost felt I needed subtitles in spots. And the shocking lack of drama lent to the film’s more ‘poignant’ moments makes you feel as though Chop Shop was shot entirely on the first take, perhaps in a cost-cutting, or time-saving move. Genuine dialogue is good, but not at the expense of eliminating any semblance of drama. The dialogue in Chop Shop is genuine, but also genuinely dull – whatever this movie is trying to say, it mumbles through it so inarticulately, and plods through it so laboriously, that by the end, I wasn’t really even listening at all.
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