Shaped like a relentless blues chant, Ramin Bahrani's hand-sized film Man Push Cart—opening Friday at the Parkway—casts a watchful eye on an overlooked New York ubiquity: the street-corner coffee-and-bagel vendor. Whatever else happens in the life of Bahrani's Pakistani hero Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi), the routine of stocking, pulling (not pushing), and tending the massive snack cart dominates his foreground. Shooting in a tiny unit on 35mm, Bahrani scans the treadmill so carefully we could do the job ourselves. Not that we'd want to—it's skill-free yet Sisyphean labor designed for immigrants with higher thresholds for despair and low-wage frustration than Americans habitually possess. As a rhythmic cry for understanding, Man Push Cart has the simplicity of an Islamic hamd call to prayer.
It also bears witness to the underslept, four-to-eight urban graveyard shift like few movies ever have, a credit to nocturnal cinematographer Michael Simmonds. Ahmad's situation is dished out in small, teasing servings: He was once a budding pop star in Lahore; he has a son currently kept with his bitter in-laws; he's a widower. More vitally to him, he's $500 away from owning his cart, and the Bicycle Thieves schema of fragile subsistence economics hovers over his days. There's no story, just reluctant relationships—between Ahmad and a wealthy compatriot (Charles Daniel Sandoval) who vacillates between promising to help the erstwhile celebrity and using him to perform chores, and a dewy Spanish girl (Leticia Dolera) working a newspaper kiosk. Superbly cast, Dolera's a bright light in the movie's dank street life, graced with a wholesome plainness and a smile that makes you want to fall asleep on her shoulder. Razvi, a sympathetic non-pro who once worked as a cartman himself, settles most of the time for an introverted solemnity.
Coming armed with a small battery of festival awards, Man Push Cart is a diminutive film, finally—vying for a neorealist vibe, it lacks the Italian history makers' narrative urgency, and the sociopolitical conflict at the heart of the immigration "issue" is hardly engaged. Bahrani seems happiest when simply capturing the meaningless but remotely reassuring repartee that foreign nationals performing menial jobs have with their customers. It's a terribly slight comfort, all things considered, but the film's stance in the end is as ambiguous as Ahmad's—humane and forgiving, but wondering if facile courtesies are as close as we'll ever get.