Raising Victor Vargas

Teen drama with feeling, think rom-com but without the weight of suckitude that normally entails.

Released in 2002, certified UK-15. Reviewed on 26 Sep 2003 by Scott Morris
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The trailer promised that Raising Victor Vargas was like a ray of sunlight burning through a cloudbank. This in no way helped me picture what the hell the film was supposed to be like, but it's an impressive bit of flowery prose that we'll have to get into the habit of writing if we're ever going to realise our ambition of seeing our quotes plastered over a film promo. What we get is a very good character piece full of believable characters doing believable things and being interesting and involving to boot. Lovely stuff.

Victor Vargas (Victor Rasuk) is a teenager of New York's lower east side, living in a small home with his younger siblings Vicki (Krystal Rodriguez), Nino (Silvestre Rasuk) and his slightly dotty grandmother (Altagracia Guzman). He has a reputation for being a ladies man (perhaps only in his own head) but that's currently under assault from his dalliance with Donna (Donna Maldonado) who is variously described as fat, ugly, and ugly and fat. In a bid to restore his reputation for attracting women of only the highest calibre, he sets his sights on local beauty 'Juicy' Judy (Judy Marte). This makes it sound like a god-awful teen sex romp, but it's nothing of the sort.

As much emphasis is placed on Victor's deteriorating relationship with his Grandmother, who seems to be going out of her way to pick fault in Victor's actions and blame all of their families woes on him. In some senses she's right, as compared to Nino's respectful, almost too good behaviour he's a tearaway rapscallion and his continued teasing of his sister as fat makes their relationship frosty. He's hardly the corrupting influence that Grandma seems to have him pegged for, however. When as part of his plan to get closer to Judy he introduces Vicki to Judy's younger brother (who goes on to display behaviour that would get him locked up for stalking were he ten years older) that Grandma disapproves of. When Nino come to him for advice about the ladies he teaches him how to lick his lips, the oddness of which is matched only be the oddness of his Grandma's over-reaction to it.

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Judy is proving difficult to woo, initially wanting nothing to do with Victor although the continued abusive catcalling from the other thuggish blokes in the neighbourhood go some way to swing her opinion. Initially using Victor as a smokescreen to keep the other horny dogs off her tail she comes to realise that underneath the initial bravura and occasional rash decision Victor is nothing like his first impressions would indicate, and actually is more sensitive and sweet than she'd imagined. Parallel to this romance Victor's friend Harold (Kevin Rivera) is having more immediate luck in his attempts to pull Judy's best friend Melonie (Melonie Diaz).

If all this sounds a trifle messy then it is, and so is life. This isn't a plot driven movie in any sense, focusing clearly on the characters director / writer Peter Sollet has created with more than a little input from the actors portraying them. I'd wager the reason the almost entirely inexperienced cast come across as very real, convincing characters on the screen is that they are playing themselves to a large extent. This sounds a little harsh but that's not my intention at all, and it's perhaps the movies greatest and most laudable trait. We've all seen any number of bad actors with bad directors and the results are uniformly horrible. Here we see good, if inexperienced actors with a good, if inexperienced director and the results are generally great if a trifle naive at points. Occasionally Altagracia Guzman seems uncomfortable with her role, but only for fleeting moments in a very few scenes. The lead characters play their roles with a deft touch and convincing emotion, every heartache palpable and it's difficult not to feel empathy with all of these characters. That a first time feature director has managed to create something so special is a real achievement.

You could set this film anywhere and it would carry equal weight and power, part of the reason it succeeds so well. The characters are the important thing, however the city provides a great support. New York has been seen in any number of films but I don't recall off-hand ever seeing this part featured in any great role, and it's almost unrecognisable. Were it not for the occasional shot of the skyline it'd be easy to forget this was the big apple at all. The hustle and bustle of the city never before equated to open-air swimming pools and bicycle repair yards where chickens range free. It's an absolutely fascinating location because of it's uniqueness and it adds a certain something to the film.

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This is a slice of life of seven people thrown together by dint of family and friends, and it's all so naturalistic that it's almost a documentary. Charting Victor's progression from cocky brat to a caring man with almost everyone else taking a journey of equal import it's a lovely film that everyone ought to be able to relate to and enjoy. Funny in places, touching in others, this is almost a rom-com with real people in real situations, not the plastic coated beautiful people contrivances the genre would generally churn out.

Comparisons with similarly shot and themed movies such as Ken Loach's Sweet Sixteen and Larry Clark's Kids are obvious, but this share none of the controversy of the latter in particular. This is hardly a problem as the complaint I'd have against Kids is that it's utterly alien to me, my life, concerns and habits were nothing like that seen in that tabloid baiting monstrosity. Victor, his friends and family are familiar and understandable. For me this makes the film more identifiable, easier to connect with and a more complete experience.

Being controversial is easy. Being convincing isn't, and that's exactly why everyone involved in the production of Raising Victor Vargas deserves great plaudits. I'm still not entirely sure what a ray of sunlight burning through a cloudbank means when applied to a movie but I'm beginning to understand.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 4/5 TippyMarks.

Peter Sollett
Cast list:
Victor Rasuk (Victor)
Judy Marte (Judy)
Melonie Diaz (Melonie Altagracia Guzman (Grandma)
Silvestre Rasuk (Nino)
Krystal Rodriguez (Vicki)
Kevin Rivera (Harold)
Donna Maldonado (Donna)