Queens Dreams

Running Time 84 minutes
Directed by Ramin Bahrani
Written by Ramin Bahrani and Bahareh Azimi
Alejandro Polanco, Isamar Gonzales

Ramin Bahrani’s Chop Shop, from a screenplay by Bahareh Azimi and Mr. Bahrani, crosses the increasingly blurry line between fiction and nonfiction films by shooting not so much on location as relocation in a 75-acre, 20-block patch in Willets Point, Queens, a wasteland area of secondhand auto-repair shops, junkyards and criminal repositories for stolen cars. F. Scott Fitzgerald designated this area in The Great Gatsby as “The Valley of the Ashes.” Now known and reviled as “The Iron Triangle,” it has been described by our current mayor as “the bleakest point of New York,” and has been in the news recently as the focal point of a controversial rezoning and rebuilding program simmering in the New York City Council.

Mr. Bahrani and his co-screenwriter, Ms. Azimi, are both of Iranian descent; Chop Shop marks Ms. Azimi’s first collaboration with Mr. Bahrani, and it is Mr. Bahrani’s second feature film. His first, Man Push Cart (2005), won critical and audience acclaim at the Venice and Sundance Film Festivals before being released in the United States in 2006. Like Man Push Cart, Chop Shop depicts a Third World existence in a land of supposedly unlimited opportunity. Alejandro (Alejandro Polanco) is a 12-year-old Latino boy making a living in an auto-repair shop as an apprentice mechanic, and as a part-time hustler of clients for his boss, real-life auto-repair-shop owner, Rob Sowulsky. Alejandro, who lives in a small room above the auto-repair shop, dreams of making a decent life for himself and his 16-year-old sister, Isamar (Isamar Gonzales). Despite Alejandro’s pleas and warnings, Isamar is perilously close to drifting into a life of prostitution by giving blow jobs to passing truck drivers. Alejandro’s plan involves repairing a broken-down taco-short-order truck, which he would drive while Isamar did the cooking. When that plan falls through, Alejandro risks prison time by snatching purses, following a much safer prior criminal career in reselling stolen hubcaps to his boss.

The wonderful thing about the film is that the wondrously charismatic Alejandro never asks for anyone’s pity, but ingeniously makes do with whatever opportunities are available, both legal and illegal. After all, he is part of our vast underground economy, and the film ends with Alejandro and Isamar still in a transitional state with undimmed hope, and unbridled energy for whatever the future brings them. The mocking Shea Stadium billboard reading “Make Dreams Happen” joins the similarly ironic Cook’s Tours sign reading “The World is Yours” to Paul Muni’s scarred and doomed gangster kingpin in Howard Hawks’ 1932 Scarface. The eternal hype for the American Dream continues onscreen and off, if only most of the time in jest.