Victor Vargas is nobody special. He’s the kind of kid you could find in almost any big city neighborhood. He shares a one bedroom New York City apartment with his grandmother, brother and half sister. He’s an American teenager trying to figure out life in a world that has offered him nothing more than what the projects can afford. And those are exactly the things that makes Raising Victor Vargas a refreshingly interesting flick.
Raising Victor Vargas seems to be an indie film answer to the “teen movie” genre. Fortunately it doesn’t succumb to doling out the hearty helpings of dopey, crude humor and under-cooked pubescent dialogue which are served up all too willingly in more mainstream offerings. In this story it’s a realistic set of teens who take to the screen and divulge their secrets, fears and adolescent pursuits.
Victor Vargas, played by Victor Rasuk, is an ordinary New York kid. Something of a teenage Don Juan, his fragile reputation around the projects is that he can win the heart of any girl he wants. That reputation, which is the only thing he has going for him, takes a hit when word gets out he’s been sleeping with “fat Donna”, the less than attractive girl upstairs. Not to be mocked, he sets out to prove himself by getting together with the most attractive girl in the neighborhood, Judy (Judy Marte). Judy cautiously agrees to let him pronounce to the world that they’re together just so she can get the rest of the neighborhood wolves off her back. Each of them gets more than they bargained for in the other, and both must decide how long they want to cling to their self-defenses before learning what it means to trust each other.
While most teen stories insult your intelligence and get caught up in the triteness of “yearbook” high school experience, Raising Victor Vargas cuts the crap and takes a candid, sincere look at the pressures of teenage life. There are no cliché graduation or prom endings here. What you do get are genuine characters in movingly believable situations.
Writer and director Peter Sollett draws amazing performances from all of his actors in this, his first feature length film. Rasuk and Marte have a solid chemistry and they both immerse themselves in their roles with an artistic passion that most young actors don’t understand. Victor’s Dominican grandmother is portrayed by Dominican born Altagracia Guzman. While this film is her first and apparently only appearance in a movie, she doesn’t let the camera get in the way of her wholly real, poignant, representation of a struggling, single grandparent. The supporting cast does a good job in helping to create a familiar whirlwind of confused emotions and conflicted messages that are the reality of teenage life.
The major downside to this movie is the over-developed ability of its teenage characters to swear in ways that would make George Carlin blush. The heavy dose of language is the only thing that earns this movie its R rating. It’s oddly refreshing to see Sollett stay so true to the world his characters live in, but at the same time its sad to know that there are a lot of people who would otherwise enjoy seeing this movie, but won’t because of the language and subsequent rating.
Too many studios in Hollywood are hooked on the formulaic teen flick format. To make matters worse, today’s movie-going crowd is all too willing to overlook the stupidity of those stories and revel in the high-school experience we all think we wish we’d had. In contrast Raising Victor Vargas has some real humanity to it and is a far more deserving candidate for far greater praise. Too bad so many will never know what they’re missing.
The special edition of Raising Victor Vargas comes on the one year anniversary of the first DVD release of the film. Apparently the original had nothing in the way of supplemental material. The special edition more than makes up for what the first round was lacking.
Let me suggest that before you listen to the director’s commentary, you start with the 29 minute short film Five Feet High and Rising. It’s the award winning short film that started it all and in it you see a rougher, more charismatic version of the story. Also written and directed by Sollett, it stars Rasuk and Marte, who would reprise their roles in the feature length version. It’s an intriguing rough draft to what is a great final work. The actors are cast almost straight off the street and while the acting and camerawork are not as honed, they are definitely as genuine as they are in Raising Victor.
OK, now flip on the commentary and watch the full length film again. I usually get bored easily with the diatribes that directors spew forth in their prerogative commentaries. But Sollett makes a welcome invitation of fellow story writer Eva Vives and several members of the cast including Rasuk, Marte and Altagracia Guzman. Their wonderful discussion and recollections shared highlight the movie beautifully. You might even want to go back and watch it again to enjoy the film’s dialogue once you realize that Sollett’s original script often went smartly by the wayside in favor of inspired actor improvisation.
There is a small assortment of other bonuses including a retrospective featurette and some production stills. Included of course, are the customary trailers for other upcoming releases. Not included of course, is the trailer for Raising Victor Vargas. A quick visit to the movie’s web site sent me back empty handed as well. If indeed the movie ever had a trailer it’s the one thing that’s missing to complete this DVD experience.
Raising Victor Vargas is a sleeper movie that may have its day sometime down the road. When that day comes, this DVD will give the movie and its creators, director, cast, and crew the credit they deserve for pulling together an ambitiously original film.