As much as I’d like to deny it, the reality is that there are kids living in this world who have to take take on adult responsibilities. They never get to be kids. Chop Shop is a story about one of those kids, Alejandro (Alejandro Polanco), a pre-teen who lives in Queens, N.Y. and hustles everyday to get by. Hustling in this case means picking up odd jobs, selling candy bars on the subway, working at a body shop, selling bootleg DVDs, and occasionally stealing.
We don’t learn much about Alejandro (who most call “Ale”) early on beyond the fact that he’s a street smart kid without any adult custodians, mentors or guidance. The only family Ale appears to have is a teenage sister, Isamar (Isamar Gonzales), who Ale serves as the caretaker for. He secures a tiny room above the car shop he works at for he and his sister. She gets a job working at a street food vendor, though the contrast between her work ethic and Ale’s are hard to miss. While Ale endlessly works with determination, Isamar is more reluctant. Ale appears so responsible that it’s easy to forget this is a homeless kid with little education and no one to care for him. The adults in Ale’s life aren’t portrayed as good or bad. Rather they are people who see a hard working kid they can pay a little money in order to make themselves more money. It would be easy for the story to portray these adults as villains and introduce another as a hero who saves Ale and Isamar from the life they’ve been forced into. Chop Shop is not that kind of movie. There are no adults stepping up and saving the day. Ale is left to fend for himself and his sister.
Chop Shop had an odd effect on me as I found myself seeing Ale as a young adult, not the child he was. It isn’t until about half way through the movie where I was shaken from this misconception. Ale was once again a child, forced to live in an adult world without a single adult to love and care for him. The cause for this change in my reaction is the closest you’ll come to a spoiler in a movie that doesn’t rely on a deep plot, so I’ll stop delving further.
The film as a whole has a documentary like feel to it. The camera never strays far from its subjects. The acting never feels like acting. Every moment feels real, which also makes it a challenge to watch at times. The harsh realities for young homeless kids does not make for a feel good movie. After watching Chop Shop, I wondered if it would have been done even better as a documentary. The almost cold and sterile approach to the filmmaking combined with difficult subject matter makes for a challenging watch. Overall it’s a well done film and the challenge to watch is most definitely rewarding.