RAISING VICTOR VARGAS
Adolescent Victor Vargas (Victor Rasuk) hopes to promote his image as a young stud in Manhattan’s sweltering Lower East Side streets one summer. The popular but independent spirited local girl, ‘Juicy’ Judy (Judy Marte) finds herself the target of his attentions. It takes a backroom deal between Victor and Judy’s brother Carlos (Wilfree Vasquez ) to effect a fresh introduction – in return for Victor returning the favour for Carlos with Victor’s sister Vicki (Krystal Rodriguez). Victor also has to help his kid brother Nino (Silvestre Rasuk) and manage his 74 year old grandmother (Altagracia Guzman), who is the put upon and exasperated acting parent for the three orphaned siblings. She threatens to throw him in the street, and Judy keeps giving him the cold shoulder, until Victor realises the difference between acting like a man and being one.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
We’re always looking for truth in art, or at least a reflection of it, something true about which we can say ‘yes, I recognise that as part of humanity’ even if it isn’t a part of our own personal experiences. That sort of truth strikes us instantly yet it is often exceptionally hard to create. Peter Sollett has created such truth in this small but totally engaging film that explores an adolescent’s discovery about love. But that makes it sound contrived and self conscious, exactly the properties this film does not have. After a month of heavy rehearsal and knowing only the general story, the cast was required to improvise their scenes.
The effect is electric; these young actors deliver painfully credible, tangible and complex characters who are neither good nor bad, and whose struggles with their lives are so universally accessible that we feel for all of them. The Lower East Side setting and the Latino background of the characters provides a context for the simple (but not simplistic) story and leaves a lasting impression as a place we have visited. Ironically, it was originally written in Sollett’s childhood neighbourhood of Brooklyn; predominantly Jewish or Italian. But when he found his perfect cast and they were Latinos, he re-set the film in the Lower East Side. They always say that good casting is the larger part of making a good film; Sollett has proved that with this outstanding film.
Review by Louise Keller:
With an impish grin and a seductive lick of the lips, Victor Vargas takes off his singlet and flexes his muscles. This is the way he operates, this sixteen-year old charmer, who thinks he knows it all, but in fact has a lot to learn when it comes to girls and the ways of the world. Set in the tough neighbourhood of Manhattan’s East Side, Raising Victor Vargas is the first feature film for writer, producer, director Peter Sollett, whose short film Five Feet High and Rising won Best Short Film Prize at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival. It was a biographical 29 minute short set in a predominantly Italian and Jewish neighbourhood, but when the script was developed into a feature length film, Sollett remoulded his concept to embrace the Latino cast who responded to the casting calls and dazzled at the auditions.
The result is a fresh observation of adolescent love and how life plays out if you’re Victor Vargas, living with his grandmother, younger brother Nino and sister Vicki and wanting to charm the world. Totally unscripted, Sollett has recruited fresh young talent from the streets and developed their improvisational skills, learning about them all the while. First, we meet Victor and very quickly we get to see that he fancies himself as a ladies’ man. He is oh so gauche, but there’s just something about him… At first it’s a bit like a game, approaching Juicy Judy at the swimming pool and being oh so cool – but when his sister threatens to tell everyone that he’s been sleeping with Fat Donna, he throws the phone out of the window and watches it fall apart on the concrete pavement below. But then we see a different side of Victor’s life – life in the dingy apartment, living under the iron rule of Grandma. Grandma puts a chain and a lock around the phone and puts any visitors through the third degree, so intent is she to keep this family unified.
While Grandma is portrayed as a bit of an ogre, she also comes across as a sad character, intent on doing the right thing by the youngsters she has been entrusted to bring up. The scene when she takes the children to the family court, wanting to leave Victor behind, is devastatingly sad. It’s all about the world they live in – Victor, Grandma, impressionable Nino who is eager to learn Victor’s ways of the world and sister Vicki whose relationship with Judy’s brother Carlos begins under the funniest and most unusual circumstances. Sollett takes us into their world with great affection and is careful not to misrepresent it. Raising Victor Vargas is no easy task, and we feel privileged to have had a bird’s eye view.
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RAISING VICTOR VARGAS (M)
CAST: Victor Rasuk, Judy Marte, Melonie Diaz, Silvestre Rasuk, Krystal Rodriguez, Kevin Rivera, Wilfree Vasquez
PRODUCER: Scott Macaulay, Robin O'Hara, Peter Sollett, Alain de la Mata
DIRECTOR: Peter Sollett
SCRIPT: Peter Sollett (story by Peter Sollett, Eva Vives)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Tim Orr
EDITOR: Myron I. Kerstein
MUSIC: Brad Jones, Roy Nathanson
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Judy Becker
RUNNING TIME: 88 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Hopscotch
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: October 23, 2003