Raising Victor Vargas is a little, indie miracle; an urban, coming-of-age, teen drama that avoids the clichés of those genres. Like a documentary produced by a crew with unlimited access, the film observes its characters with such intimacy viewers may feel less like they’re watching a movie and more like they’re peeking through a keyhole. And though the film contains a fair amount of realistic, foul-mouthed dialogue, this city-set love story proves as optimistic about romance and family as an MGM musical.
From the outset, writer-director Peter Sollett committed to casting unknown actors for his feature debut. Thank God. The movie’s untrained cast brings such a natural charm and spontaneity to each scene that it’s hard to believe the filmmakers worked with a screenplay at all. And it’s an attractive cast, too; one that reminds us of the beauty of ordinary faces.
Shot on 16mm film by George Washington cinematographer Tim Orr, Victor Vargas sports a warm, summery palette that translates gorgeously to DVD.
For this reviewer, the only down side to the production is that at 88-minutes, Raising Victor Vargas ends way too soon.
The seeds for Victor Vargas sprout from an earlier project by Sollett, the multi-award-winning, autobiographical short film, Five Feet High and Rising (Short Filmmaking Award, Sundance 2000, Cinefoundation Award, Cannes 2000, among others). In a bit of non-traditional casting, white, middle-class Sollett auditioned kids from every racial and socioeconomic background imaginable. Of the many bureaus included in his search, Sollett was most impressed with the kids on the Lower East Side, a predominantly Latino community.
Sollett was so inspired by that neighborhood’s enthusiasm that he went home and designed Raising Victor Vargas around his Five Feet High cast. Once the cast was in place, Sollett set the film in the actors’ own neighborhood, borrowing details from their lives to inform his story. Most of the leads, for instance, use their real first names for their characters.
As was the case with Five Feet High and Rising, actors Victor Rasuk and Judy Marte play the leads in Victor Vargas. Watching their natural, un-affected performances, it comes as quite a surprise that neither teen considered acting before Sollett’s auditions. In their roles, the two are brilliant, carrying the drama and humor of their love story without once compromising the film’s documentary feel.
Unfolding on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Raising Victor Vargas tells the story of its title character, a Dominican teen. With a muscular physique, handsome face and roguish grin, it’s easy to believe that young Vic has come to take for granted his reputation as a ladies man. It’s the nail on which all the teen’s self-esteem hangs. So, it’s more than unfortunate when he’s busted in the bedroom of ‘Fat’ Donna Santiago, an unpopular girl in his building. It’s the end of his world.
As with most tight-knit communities, news — especially bad news — travels fast. In no time Victor becomes a laughing stock among his peers. Determined to save face and regain his playa status, Victor recognizes a shot at redemption in ‘Juicy’ Judy Gonzalez, the most lovely and inaccessible girl in his neighborhood.
It’s a testament to the filmmaker’s sensitivity that ‘Juicy’ Judy isn’t the bombshell her nickname implies. As played by Marte, Judy is a lean, boyishly-thin waif blessed with just enough beauty to invite innocent crushes and offensive comments alike. Hassled daily, Judy gets so much of the latter she’s got no interest in the former.
When a local teen chides Vic about sleeping with ‘Fat’ Donna, Victor is shamed into action. With his best friend Harold in tow, Victor approaches Judy and her friend Melonie on the deck of a public pool.
“Yo, how you ladies doin’?” Victor grins, kneeling next to Judy. “My name is Vic. This is my associate right here, Harold.”
The girls roll their eyes. Victor speaks only to Judy.
“Me and my man just wanted to know if you wanted to double-date one of these days or somethin’, you know…”
Pouring on the charm, Vic’s undaunted by Melonie’s claim that Judy has a boyfriend.
“Oh,” he says, smiling at Judy. “What are you gonna do, ignore me now?”
“Vic,” Melonie interjects, sweeping her arms between him and her friend. “Do you see the wall of isolation?”
When that fails to send Victor on his way, Judy stands abruptly, taking his arm and leading him to the edge of the pool.
“Look at that,” she tells him, pointing to his reflection. “Does that look like God’s gift to women? I don’t think so.”
Some of the film’s most memorable scenes play out in Victor’s family life, which Sollett gives a full third of the film’s running time.
At home, Victor fights constantly with his kid sister, lives in the shadow of his squeaky-clean younger brother, and regularly disappoints his strict grandmother -– the family’s sole guardian — with his headstrong behavior.
“Promise something to Grandma,” she begs him, her accent thick. “Be good, and then the rest is gonna be good, too.” Clearly Victor’s heard this before. “S’posed to be example for the family,” she reminds him.
It’s a responsibility Victor doesn’t takes to heart, as evidenced when he blows off church with grandma and his sibs to sneak Judy back to their empty apartment.
“This is where all the Victor love happens,” he boasts playfully, offering Judy a beer (which she refuses), showing her a portrait of his father (which he poses in front of to prove his resemblance), and showing off a make-out tent he’s fashioned over his bed, “for privacy.” When Victor attempts to make his move, Judy heads for the door.
“Listen,” she scolds. “You’re my new man. But I’m warning you, don’t fuck with me.” Victor’s speechless. “G’head,” she says, walking out. “Tell your little friends.”
And tell he does. In no time Victor’s getting “pounds” (congratulations) from the local boys, and his playa cred’ is re-established, it would seem, for life. Little does Victor know, Judy has her own self-centered plans for Victor; plans that don’t include romance.
As the two work from their separate agendas, the teens are drawn to each other in ways that neither sees coming. Sollett’s wonderful screenplay and talented cast make Victor and Judy’s romance spark with potential without ever feeling guaranteed.
Additionally, Sollett takes the high road throughout his urban love poem, avoiding the clichés a less talented filmmaker might have piled high. You know the list.
“I find that stuff really boring,” Sollett sighs when the subject is raised. “Guns and drugs and abortions and violence aren’t the central aspects of lives,” he says. “So why should they be central aspects of a film relating to their lives?”
Raising Victor Vargas rotates between Victor and Judy’s romance, and the courtships of their younger siblings, and best friends, each of which is played for laughs. Victor’s friend Harold — played with rakish charisma by Kevin Rivera — and Judy’s friend Melonie — the adorable Melonie Diaz — begin their romance with a pitch-perfect bit of comic foreplay, complete with fake violence, flirtatious insults, and childish double-dares, making their scenes the most accurately observed teen courtships in memory. Sollett struck comic gold with the chemistry between these two.
Despite the bottomless charm of its young cast, Raising Victor Vargas is all but stolen by its oldest cast member, Altagracia Guzman. Guzman plays grandma, the Vargas family’s stern and devoutly Catholic matriarch.
“She’s a 74-year-old first-timer,” Sollett says. “There aren’t too many 74-year-olds who are doing anything for the first time, let alone making movies.” Despite her tiny size and world-weary eyes, Guzman proves a loveable, formidable presence. As the only adult left the teens, grandma is quick to lay down the law and take decisive action, even if it means putting a bad influence out of the house. “She has a massive personality and she is very enthusiastic,” Sollett says. “When she walks into a room, she owns it, and everybody is one of her grandchildren.”
Raising Victor Vargas is a must-see for indie film lovers, and a must-have for aspiring filmmakers everywhere. Sollett’s feature debut is a virtuoso study of compelling moviemaking at rock bottom prices, proving the axiom: story is everything. And in this case, great casting and smart direction don’t hurt, either.
The only downside to Columbia Tristar’s first release of VICTOR VARGAS is that it’s completely naked. Completely! No trailers. No commentaries. No extras. No making-of documentaries or above-the-line interviews.
REPORTER’s NOTE: Columbia Tristar has since released a Special Edition DVD of the film that includes most of these things in addition to writer—director Sollett’s wonderful short film, FIVE FEET HIGH AND RISING. More in a follow-up review.
If Raising Victor Vargas weren’t such a brilliant stand-alone film, this would be a deadly blow. Not since the DVD release of Columbia-Tristar’s Adaptation has a film inspiring so much behind-the-scenes curiosity left its fans so high and dry when it finally hit the streets.
In a FilmFreakCentral.net interview, Sollett mentioned that Altagracia Guzman got so absorbed in her role as grandma to her on-screen teenage family that she’d often improvise spontaneously, turning to off-screen crew members to complain: “Look what I have to put up with!”
Now that would have made for a golden Easter Egg.