American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
"Chop Shop" has such an immediate sense of time and space that it comes as a slight shock to understand that the time is now and the place is in the shadow of the late Shea Stadium -- or, more accurately, next to the right-field parking lot. This area is known as the Iron Triangle, a crowded, ramshackle bazaar of auto-parts shops. We see it through the eyes of Alejandro, universally known as Ale, a 12-year-old who lives and works there. If you squint a little to turn the automobiles into carriages, this would be a story by Dickens.
Ale is enterprising and optimistic. In exchange for his work, he lives in a knocked-together plywood room under the roof of a shop owned by a man named Rob. He gets $5 for every passing car he flags onto the premises. This income he supplements by selling candy on the subway, peddling bootlegged DVDs, stealing hubcaps and snatching purses. He is not a criminal. He is a survivor. He goes at things as he has taught himself, and will make the record in his own way: first to knock, first admitted, sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes not so innocent.
That is how Saul Bellow wrote of Augie March. "Chop Shop" (2007) also evokes F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote about this very area in The Great Gatsby. He named it the Valley of the Ashes. In the 1920s, it was the wasteland on the way from East and West Egg to Manhattan: Occasionally, a line of gray cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-gray men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud, which screens their obscure operations from your sight.
Ale is in the tradition of American symbols of upward striving. A Latino, he is in the line of those poor Jews, Irish and Italians who landed in New York and hustled for a living. He is an immensely strong boy, and a vulnerable kid. He seems to be an orphan, but he has a sister, Isamar, four years older, and he visibly glows when she comes to live with him. He has been preparing this home for them. When she complains it is small, he is cheerful: It has a little refrigerator. It has a microwave. She will be happy.