Immersive realism has been a part of world cinema almost from the invention of the movie camera, but few novice filmmakers have proven as adept at it as Ramin Bahrani. In Chop Shop, Bahrani's second NYC-set feature film, the Iranian-American director follows Alejandro Polanco, a 12-year-old orphan who lives with his 16-year-old sister Isamar Gonzales in the "Iron Triangle" neighborhood, in the shadow of Shea Stadium. Bahrani watches Polanco as he sells candy on the subway, stolen car parts in the street, and bootleg porn DVDs in the alley, all in an effort to raise enough cash to buy a vendor-van so he can sell empanadas with Gonzales. Because Bahrani's actors are mostly amateurs, he doesn't load them down with a lot of dialogue or extended improvisation. Instead, he builds sequences out of economical gestures and actions, telling the story so clearly and fleetly that he puts more ponderous neo-realists to shame.
All that's holding Chop Shop back from being a great movie—as opposed to a merely good one—is that there really isn't much to it. The plot proceeds about as expected, with Polanco fretting over his sister and suffering setbacks. The particulars are well-etched: Bahrani draws a clean contrast between Polanco's near-24-hour work schedule and the way his best friend gets to goof off, and lingers on Polanco's wary gazes at Gonzales after he discovers that she's been prostituting herself. But none of these details are unique to the poverty-peeping genre.
What is unique about Chop Shop is the setting. All these low-level criminal enterprises and idle dreams aren't happening in Mexico City or Kandahar; they're just outside Queens. Bahrani stages scenes with a full Shea Stadium as a backdrop, and on the walkway where tennis fans head into the U.S. Open. Polanco lives on the margins, but in the margins of a prosperous society, accessible by subway. The essence of need may be the same the world over, but in the United States, the nature of need is quite different.