ON DVD: Peter Sollett's "Raising Victor Vargas"; A Tender First Feature That Is Perfect On Its Own Terms
by Ray Pride
Peter Sollett's "Raising Victor Vargas" is the kind of sharp, tender, precise, and knowing small wonder that says more than most epics. Drawing on his superb 1999 short, "Five Feet High and Rising," which won prizes at Sundance and Cannes, Sollett has created a glorious, full-blooded, oft-profane, fully inhabited microcosm of life and love among teenagers on New York's Lower East Side. Using mostly nonprofessional actors, Sollett tells the story of Victor Vargas (Victor Rasuk) and his family: a younger sister, Vicki (Krystal Rodriguez), a younger brother, Nino (Silvestre Rasuk), and his cranky, endlessly put-upon old-school Dominican grandmother (Altagracia Guzman). At his most senselessly self-assured, Victor works the streets as a teen Latino "Roger Dodger" but at other times, he's just the cutest dork on the block. He likes to think he's Casanova, but he's actually still a kid, with bravado, the adrenaline tremor behind teenage hubris and self-regard. "Juicy Judy" (Judy Marte), the girl he longs for, sees through him, but the layers of that contemplation are patiently revealed.
[EDITORS NOTE: The film will be available on DVD this week.]
It's the essential hormonal equation: discomfort and desire, inextricably combined. The result is that "Raising Victor Vargas" is the rare contemporary sample of comic neorealism, a small movie that manages to quietly capture with looks and smiles the same things that required operatic conflicts in movies like Visconti's "Rocco and His Brothers." Another great trait is Sollett's immense compassion and empathy. He originally wrote the script to be set in Bensonhurst, the predominantly Italian and Jewish neighborhood where he grew up. It began as an autobiographical project, but he couldn't find the type of actors he wanted. Then Sollett and his partner Eva Vives started posting notices in their East Village neighborhood, and most of the kids who responded were Latino. While it began as an autobiographical piece, Sollett worked for the two years between the short and the feature with the performers, observing them, asking about their lives, and bringing the fruit of their friendship to the screen. "Raising Victor Vargas" shows affection without sentimentality and it also shows a wry acknowledgment of the complexities of a family's conflicting desires. (It's also one of the great portraits of how teenagers tease each other.) I also really admire how the film benefits from an instinct for the documentary truth of directed improvisation, which is then sculptured through assured editing.
Other technical aspects shine as well, including the camerawork of Tim Orr ("George Washington," "All The Real Girls"), in richly grained super 16 images, replete with jittery, itchy sneak-zooms that tickle in ever so much more tightly on a good instant of performance. Other times, the camera holds with infinite patience and love, letting a moment between the actors play and play and play. There's brilliant sound recording as well. Listen to the voice of actress Melonie Diaz, who plays Judy's seemingly mousy but actually beautiful best friend. Every sly intonation of her almost-a-whisper voice comes across with rich nuance.
The performances are impeccable as well. There are close-ups of the confounded grandmother that capture what it is to love, fear, fear for, and be wounded by one's family. And I think Victor Vargas may have the best joke about masturbation of all time with a sly reference towards the end of the film. I've seldom laughed so hard. This is the sort of movie that I don't want to compare to the work of others (such as Mike Leigh and Ken Loach). Raising Victor Vargas is perfect on its own terms. I laughed, guffawed, cried, wanted to see movies just as good, wanted to make movies of my own. The 26-year-old Sollett and his collaborators prove themselves to be masterful miniaturists and also that there's no subject larger than the beating of the human heart.