Alexandra Lange | Essays

Auto Pilot

Wendy and Lucy, I remembered Chop Shop, written and directed by Ramin Bahrani, whose latest movie, Goodbye Solo, got very good reviews last year. Chop Shop is set in what is properly known as Willets Point, better known as the Iron Triangle: a largely unpaved and unpoliced section of Queens, hard by Shea Stadium, LaGuardia Airport and the site of the USTA National Tennis Center, that is home to several blocks of auto repair shops. I’ve only been there on a Sunday, when it is deserted and dusty, but the film makes it look, on a good day, like an automotive Little India. Our hero is Alejandro, a dark, painfully thin boy of 12 that lives and works in one of the garages, serving as tout, errand boy and assistant buffer. There’s not much plot, but what there is consists of Ale’s relentless quest to rise and his desire to pull his recalcitrant sister Isamar up with him. The dream of the film is a food truck, dashed but not desperately. I appreciated Bahrani’s willingness to have things go bad, but not disastrously. He ends with a moment of sibling togetherness and a very New York symbol of hope, the humble pigeon.

That doesn’t mean that Chop Shop was a very good movie. I was bored not by the plotlessness, or even the purposely inartistic direction, but by the lack of acting. Alejandro Polanco and Isamar Gonzales (their real names) are not professional actors and while they didn’t look uncomfortable on screen, I failed to empathize, I think because they were not cluing me in to how they felt. If this was meant to be pseudo-documentary, like City of God, I was failing to feel the outrage that two apparently American minors could be set adrift in New York City. I didn’t believe that this was really happening, even though I remember reading that the story was based on reality. A well-written story in the New York Times would have made me feel more, and probably answered the many nagging questions the film didn’t. I understand elliptical storytelling and learning as you go, but if you leave too many things up in the air the audience doesn’t know what to think or how to react. How old are Ale and Isamar (I got his age from IMDB)? Are they American, Dominican, immigrants or citizens? Where are the parents? Can he really have never gone to school? Ale can count, but can’t read. This fact should be a major reveal, if this is more than a made-up story, a sort of reverse of living in the Metropolitan Museum, but it gets passed over in traffic.

I don’t want to believe that I felt so much more watching Wendy and Lucy because Wendy, as a white, young, once middle-class woman is so much closer to me. I would like to think it was the power of the acting and filmmaking. There was practically no dialogue and yet, the necessary questions were answered, so the viewer could just sit back and absorb the situation. Chop Shop was much busier, but it never seemed true. Maybe that’s just my blinkers.

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