If cinema failed to turn out a single additional film about the woes
and consternation of the idle rich, then very little will have been
lost. Films about wealthy people are easy to make, in that one can fill
the background with gorgeous settings, elaborate period costume, and
ostentatious displays of wealth in order to hide the relative paucity
of something new or interesting to say. When making films about the
impoverished, however, it becomes more complicated. Poor people, unless
they have turned to crime, work for a living and spend most waking
hours toiling in some thankless labor before retreating to a
nondescript hovel that would hardly be photogenic. Such films must be
more clever, with a turn of wit to occupy the viewer; more human, with
fully fleshed out characters that one cares about after the film has
ended; or more real, with a visceral urgency that hits home to anyone
who is a paycheck away from poverty themselves. This latter approach
has yielded masterpieces essential to the history of cinema,
particularly with the Italian Neorealist movement, which concerned
itself with the lives of working class people and the way their grim
existence forces them to make difficult moral choices.

Director Ramin Bahrani has made neorealism his raison d’être with
his first two features focusing on the desperate working class. Man
Push Cart was released in 2006, and showed an extraordinary talent in
this Iranian-born filmmaker when it comes to portraying the American
working class on the very edge of existence. With Chop Shop, Bahrani
produces a lyrical work out of the punishing grind of a hustling street
child. This is neorealism at its finest, and apart from the languages
used, could be taking place in any big city in any country on earth.
Alejandro Polanco plays the lead with a strong, naturalistic
performance that attests to Bahrani’s skill with actors. He is a
homeless child who hustles daily with a skill and determination that
would impress a Wall Street trader. He sells candy on the subway, body
shop services, pirated DVDs; mostly he sells himself, and his wares are
backed by his unspoken reputation for integrity. Legal or illegal is
irrelevant – this is the supply and demand economy that every
libertarian dreams of, and he is in it for the duration.

He has a sister, and cares deeply about her, arranging a job and a home
for her so they can work together towards something resembling
stability and comfort. Alejandro has more than work in mind, however,
as he voices constant distrust of her friends, and watches over her
like a father figure for signs of irresponsibility. They work, and they
work, and once in a while play, taking advantage of those rare quiet
moments to remind them of why they keep pushing. They get ahead and
stack money, and fall behind with setbacks large and small, but they
never slow down for a moment.

There is considerable efficiency throughout, as the story is told with
little exposition, leaving you to figure out the characters, their
histories, and their thoughts by what they do and what they say. This
is more nebulous than it appears as the dialogue of every character
remains focused tightly on work, and where the next dollar is coming
from. Anytime the main character considers something that doesn’t
involve money, he is quiet, immobile, with a storm of emotions hidden
from view. In one scene, he sees his sister about to blow some trucker
for a few dollars, and the devastation this wreaks upon him is all the
greater for occurring in silence. Perhaps he could interrupt the
exchange, and moralize to his sister all day about how wrong
prostitution is. This kid is pragmatic above all, however, and he knows
the score. Morals don’t pay the rent, and you must sell whatever you
have, as the system demands. He skips the indignant speeches and gets
her a better job working in a café cart, and provides her with a tip
jar, reminding her to put her tips in there. It is a big jar, which
makes the urgency of his attempts to make a better life for his sister
all the more affecting.

Another element of this efficiency of filmmaking is seen in the way
metaphor is buried deeply in what is a deceptively simple series of
scenes of people hard at work. The chop shop itself deals with stolen
car parts, but in a way the society all of these characters inhabit is
a human chop shop, with people selling whatever parts of their time,
skills, and humanity that the buyer will take. Alejandro’s long term
plan, his own café cart to sell food to the other workers in the Iron
Triangle, is an especially effective symbol. After hustling stolen
goods and saving the cash that his sister has been gathering from
blowjobs for sweaty drivers, Alejandro buys his dream truck, which
turns out to be a rotten shell. Impossible to convert to a mobile
kitchen that will pass city health codes, it is sold at a substantial
discount for parts. This is fitting, as most of our dreams are sold
long before they approach fruition. The closing shot is simple beauty
itself, as Alejandro tries to distract his sister after she is
humiliated, with a flurry of pigeons that hustle like everyone else in
this society. A thoughtful moment, which will be followed by a return
to the grind.

Part of this neorealist approach is to avoid outright moralizing or
messages of any kind, allowing the images to convey the ideas. In this
way, Chop Shop excels beyond measure, as you inhabit this world from
the opening shot, and you follow this kid from job to job, with not a
moment wasted. The very concept of a free market economy makes a great
deal of sense, as long as that concept remains on a page, safely away
from the unmerciful grip of reality. Once this mechanical idea is
applied to soft and vulnerable humans, those humans toughen up as much
as they can, but eventually everyone is broken down into parts when
there is nothing left to sell. You can hustle all you want, but if you
go to jail for providing stolen parts (which are only stolen in the
first place because people are eager to buy them cheaply), or get
hospitalized with pneumonia, or get destroyed by a well-connected
competitor, there is no way to recover fully and build a decent future.
One can only get back up and start building from square one, with
chance dictating fortunes every bit as much as one’s work ethic. And if
you fall it does not matter, as one missing face in a sea of hustlers
will not make a difference – the chop shop remains open and humming
with business.