Now “Chop Shop” is another film about making a hard living in New York City, and with more time to film and stunning performances by his very young actors, Bahrani has made an even more powerful film. It is set in Willet’s Point, Queens, and stars a 12-year-old boy named Alejandro Polanco and a 16-year-old girl named Isamar Gonzales, playing a brother and sister who share a tiny room above an auto repair shop. The film is so very real that the shop owner, Rob Sowulski, plays himself, and shares the whole film’s feeling of authenticity. For that matter Alejandro and Isamar attend the same school, and she was the close friend of his sister.
First a word about Willet’s Point. Bahrani observes in his notes that this area was the original Valley of the Ashes in Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Now it is a 75-acre district called “the Iron Triangle,” a third world clone jammed with auto and body part shops and the population that lives off of them. Alejandro (all the actors use their real names) hustles customers for his boss’s shop, learns the auto repair trade, peddles M&Ms on the subway, does some hubcap-stealing and purse-snatching, and dreams that he and his sister will own their own taco and beans truck.
He and Isamar, both from Puerto Rico, spontaneously, joyously like each other, and one of the movie’s scenes of heartbreaking reality shows them at horseplay—just a couple of kids, in a world of unremitting poverty. Bahrani’s camera lives in their lives. There is no false sentiment in his story, just a fascination with these characters. The area is across the expressway from Shea Stadium and in the LaGuardia flight path, but seems to be in another world than the United States. And yet the ingenuity and improvisation of this brother and sister forces the Iron Triangle to support them, sometimes by any means necessary. Now we have an American film with the raw power of “City of God” or “Pixote,” a film that does something unexpected, and inspired, and brave.