As of now, I have seen three of Ramin Bahrani’s films (99 Homes, Goodbye Solo, and as you can guess, Chop Shop), and while half of his feature films remain to be experienced, it’s easy to identify what a unique voice he is for independent American cinema. When we look back on formative and iconic film movements like the French New Wave, German Expressionism or Italian Neo-realism, we can only imagine what it was like to be alive and engaged with the movement as it was happening. That’s why it’s so exciting to currently be in the middle of one. It’s a movement I’ve decided to call the “New Americana” film movement, despite that title’s association with a currently hot pop song.
In addition to Bahrani, there’s a group of other talented filmmakers that have formed this movement. David Gordon Green’s more dramatic work exemplifies the cinematic aesthetics (see George Washington, Joe, Prince Avalanche or Snow Angels), him acting as a sort of shepherd of the movement as he came to prominence before others. Kelly Reichardt, in particular her film Wendy & Lucy, is a strong voice in the movement, and the filmography of Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter and Mud) puts him at the forefront as well.
The films of the New Americana movement are about the clash between the harsh economic realities of trying to live in modern America and the sense of the individual, of the self. They present an authentic and intimate portrayal of working class and lower class life, one that steers away from stereotypes and other means of traditional convention. They understand just how much a job determines nearly every aspect of life. These are characters that work for a living. The American dream isn’t achieved through hard work anymore; if it’s achieved at all, it’s through constant unforgiving struggle.
Bahrani’s Chop Shop follows Alejandro (Alejandro Polanco), often referred to as just Ale, who is a young orphan living on the streets of Queens, New York City. He gets a job (and a small room) at a chop shop in a neighborhood known as the Iron Triangle, just behind Shea Stadium. When his sister Isamar (Isamar Gonzales) comes to live with him, he hustles even harder to make money so they can buy a rundown food truck for themselves.
For a while, it seems Isamar is somehow ungrateful or indifferent to the constant care Ale provides. However, this perspective goes out the window when Ale discovers that Isamar has been prostituting herself at night to make extra money. He’ll never tell her he knows, nor will she tell him. Each of them is trying to protect the other by not confiding in the other. Ale’s reaction to finding out the secret is to give Isamar a tip jar for her day job at a food truck — “In case you need the extra money.” He looks at her with a hidden sadness while she tells him to get out of bed, a morning after he knows she’s been out the night before working. Ale begins to hustle harder to make the necessary money to pull Isamar out of sex work, and aside from working in the chop shop, he also steals hubcaps and sells bootleg DVDs along with candy bars. At one point, he steals a purse out of desperation. It’s an act of tragic sympathy.
In perhaps the most defining film of the “New Americana Movement,” the situations and characters of Chop Shop don’t feel staged. Aside from Ale and Isamar, all the people at the Iron Triangle actually work there. Shots and scenes unfold as if nobody is aware of the camera. There’s no musical score in the film, as Bahrani knows that having one would actually dilute the authenticity. Bahrani makes tremendous use of the setting with Shea Stadium always in the background, this sort of loud iconic representation of the American Dream always just out of reach. One scene finds Ale and friend Carlos watching a Mets game from a parking structure behind Shea Stadium, and that image reflects themes of disparity in both this film and the movement itself. “It’s a better view from up here than over there.”
Each of Bahrani’s films (that I’ve seen) have characters struggling their best to achieve their own version of the American Dream, which is the common theme in the New Americana movement. In Goodbye Solo, the title character is a taxi driver hoping to become a flight attendant in order to provide better care for his wife and step-daughter. In 99 Homes, a young father named Dennis grinds to buy back the family home that he and his family were evicted from. In Chop Shop, it’s all about Ale hustling to make the $4500 to buy the rundown food truck in order to create a new life for himself and Isamar. The American Dream, as evidenced by the New Americana movement, is only ever achieved (if at all) through constant struggle. Even when Ale gets the money for the food truck and signs the papers, he finds out he’s been cheated. While the exterior of the vehicle can be fixed up, the interior is molded and rusted beyond repair. It would need to be completely rebuilt with new equipment, which Ale cannot afford. He ends up having to sell the thing for parts and begins rebuilding his American Dream all over again.
It’s the tremendous spirit that keeps Chop Shop from becoming an unbearably dour affair, as Ale has an endless optimism in him. Where Isamar sees a small room for them to live in, Ale notices that it has a fridge, a microwave and a shower downstairs. He never stays down for long (despite the circumstances), his determination always powering through. Bahrani doesn’t hammer down depressing moments with traditional conventions (score and explanatory dialogue) but through the honesty of the script and these performers.
The final shot is one of wonder, as Ale draws a bunch of pidgeons over to a sad and silent Isamar with bird seed. She smiles and gives in to Ale’s coaxing, stomping her foot down and causing the pidgeons to fly away. The camera tilts up with the pidgeons until they all fly out of shot. It’s amazing how a realistic scene –without any effects — can create something more magical than what most blockbusters can offer. Chop Shop is one of the most authentic American works this century and stands as one of the most defining films of the New Americana film movement.
Dylan Moses Griffin has been a cinephile for as long as he can remember. His favorite film is Taxi Driver, and he reads the works of Roger Ebert like it’s scripture. If you want, he will talk to you for 30 minutes about the chronologically weird/amazing Fast and Furious franchise.