RAISING VICTOR VARGAS
(director/writer: Peter Sollett; screenwriters: from a play by Mr. Sollett/Eva Vives; cinematographer: Tim Orr; editor: Myron I. Kerstein; music: Brad Jones/Roy Nathanson; cast: Victor Rasuk (Victor), Judy Marte (Judy), Altagracia Guzman (Grandma), Melonie Diaz (Melonie), Silvestre Rasuk (Nino), Donna Maldonado (Fat Donna), Krystal Rodriguez (Vicki), Kevin Rivera (Harold), Wilfree Vasquez (Carlos), Gladys Austin (Social Worker); Runtime: 88; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Peter Sollett/Alain de la Mata/Robin O’Hara/Scott Macaulay; Samuel Goldwyn Films and Fireworks Films; 2002)
“It’s funny, romantic, tender, probing and true to life.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Peter Sollett’s feature debut is an engaging piece of filmmaking that examines the pitfalls of growing up for 16-year-old Victor Vargas, a macho Dominican resident of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. It is played with a sense of genuineness and a stunning mixture of grit and sentimentality by the mostly nonprofessional ensemble cast. It’s mostly a comedy of manners, with a poignancy and deep affection for character. The filmmaker’s great storytelling skills keep this bitter-sweet coming-of-age love story from falling into the traps of a feel-good sitcom. Because of its realism it rises to a rarely elevated level of uniqueness in such teen genres (comparing it to most mainstream ones on this theme might make one appreciate it even more). It captures life experiences without becoming overly sentimental and in a way that humanizes the Latino youths despite their many flaws. “Raising” has a deep understanding of teenage emotions and wisely allows the characters to express in their own way who they are without contrivances. It’s funny, romantic, tender, probing and true to life. The film is more fully developed from the 27-year-old Jewish Bensonhurst native and NYU film school graduate’s thesis film, Five Feet High and Rising. Mr. Sollett originally wrote this film for his own ethnic group and the Italians he knew from childhood, but changed the story during casting. The same players in the school short are cast in this film. Most were hired by answering fliers for the audition posted in the East Village neighborhood.
It is set during the hot days of summer where the boys walk the streets in shorts and tank tops. Most of the scenes take place in the safety of playgrounds or at home, and during daylight except for a key tender one towards the end.
The film opens with the handsome, self-styled lover-boy,Victor, in the upstairs bedroom apartment of the notorious Fat Donna, where he swears her to secrecy before they make love. But before entering her, his best friend Harold calls from the street below. As he pops his head out of the window, Harold laughs that he’s with Fat Donna and teasingly threatens to tell Judy, the sweet girl Victor has a crush on. Also, Victor’s overweight and bitchy younger teenage stepsister Vicki looks out the window and immediately gets on the phone to alert others that her brother is with the obese Fat Donna. Shame overcomes Victor, as he quickly splits without caring that he hurt Donna’s feelings. Back in his apartment, Victor is so angry at sis that he tosses the family phone out the window because she refuses to promise to stop making calls. When his guardian elderly grandmother comes home, she has the recovered phone taped back together and puts a lock on it declaring it now only to be used for an emergency when she’s home.
Victor and Harold go to the local public pool they regularly hang out in and eyeball the two Latino girls about their age who they can’t wait to meet, but don’t make a move because they are afraid of rejection. Victor’s nickname for his potential girlfriend is”Juicy Judy.” When they approach the girls at last, the Lothario suddenly loses his cool and fumbles the opportunity by acting too cocky. She rejects him, making up a story that she has a boyfriend. But Harold tries a softer approach and makes better progress with Melanie, a girl confused about her ability to attract boys. Both girls are inexperienced sexually and fearful of boys, as they team up and develop a tough posture to walk through the ghetto streets where they are regularly accosted by boys who make vulgar passes at them. Judy is also wary of men because of her mom’s divorce.
Victor is persistent in pursuing his dream girl and connects with her younger brother Carlos, who happens to be attracted to Victor’s sister Vicki. The two agree to smooth things over by way of introductions to their respective sisters.
Grandmother is old-fashioned strict and a regular church-goer, and is pleased that Nino obeys her commands but not happy with the more street-wise older Victor. She holds the family together and even though the children are displeased with her uncompromising values, they realize she means well and they need her. They might be poverty-stricken but have dignity and family love. They are not criminals, or social deviants, or involved in drugs or anything like that. All the children share the same bedroom, and the boys share the same bed in the tiny tenement apartment.
During these idle summer days, Victor is feeling love pangs and is trying terribly hard to impress the equally unsure Judy and start a real relationship after a bad start. Conflicts arise when granny thinks Victor is a bad influence on Nino and tries to kick him out of the house. She takes him to a social worker in family court, and pleads her case that Victor taught Nino how to masturbate. But when the system doesn’t work in her favor, she accepts Victor back after he apologizes.
Though the story centers around Victor and Judy and their performances are appealing, the rigid granny steals every scene she’s in. But I was also quite taken by the couch potato Vicki and how she relates to granny and Victor by body language, as her understated performance gets at all the childish emotions of a sheltered youngster who strangely finds that someone loves her as she is. There was great comedy in the family relationships and a fine parody of youths posturing, but also unearthed were some heavy problems that arise as the children try to become more experienced but try not to frighten granny too much by their increased worldliness. It was just a wonderful humanistic film, that had a genuine affection for all its flawed characters. It’s any one’s guess what will become of these children, as so many things vital to their lives such as education and career are never brought up. But the film held my attention and kept me glued to my seat in awe at how authentic it all seemed. These children caught my interest even though their lives were so uninteresting. Victor eventually proved that he was up to being accepted by the superior Judy. He stripped himself of some things that made him a jerk when he realized he wasn’t getting over, showing he was capable of changing for the better. Sometimes it’s just such small things accomplished that could be equated with the miracles of life.
REVIEWED ON 6/2/2003 GRADE: A –