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Raising Victor Vargas

dir: Peter Sollett
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Raising Victor Vargas is an oddity and an anachronism in this day and age: it is a sweet, enjoyable film about teenagers which looks at the daily concerns of their urban lives as well as but not confined to looking at the complications that arise due to their burgeoning sexuality. But it does it without descending into idiocy, and remains honest and ‘truthful’ throughout.

Uh oh. Red flags go up immediately. No, this is neither the kind of film Larry Clark (of Kids, Bully and Ken Park fame) makes to masturbate over, nor is it the banal Porky’s wannabe that the American Pie trio of movies aspired to be (when they didn’t devolve into mawkish sentimentality). It’s a naturalistic (as ‘naturalistic’ as any film can be, without being a documentary) look at some people’s lives on the Lower East Side in Manhattan. The people the story focuses on are naturally welfare/working class Hispanic Americans, living in government housing.

It might seem from that vantage point that the focus of the film would be on poverty and crime but it isn’t. Those elements play no part except in framing the story: they’re not present as explicit elements but naturally can’t be completely disregarded as they play a substantial part of the urban environment that the characters inhabit. The film simply follows several days in the lives of various characters, taking its time, setting itself modest targets and achieving them beautifully.

The character of the title is the lynchpin around which the story revolves, as it follows his life and the lives of the people he is connected to. Being a teenager on the verge of manhood, naturally sex takes up a substantial proportion of his time and energy. So in a simplistic way the film’s main focus seems to be the fact that Victor would very much like to fuck a girl called Judy.

At film’s beginning Victor is caught out having sex with an unpopular neighbourhood girl, unpopular because she’s overweight, I guess. You’d think that chubby people should somehow be disqualified from ever having sex based on this logic, but this is teenagers, and we all know how rigidly conformist they can be. As this gossip regarding his sexploits spreads through their community, Victor’s embarrassment compels him to seek out a method to regain his stud reputation amongst his peers. Doing so requires that he score with a girl considered to be attractive and popular, and virtually unattainable. Enter Judy, who is tired of being the constant target of teenage male desire. Her initial interactions with Victor reflect this wariness, and from then on she plays her own game with Victor who is at first none the wiser.

Victor and his two siblings live with their grandma, who is a strange creature. She seems like a bizarre Puerto Rican hobbit, with the weirdest voice I’ve heard in donkey’s years. She is a devout Christian who watches with dismay as Victor grows, becoming, in her eyes a dangerous and negative influence on his brother and half-sister. Their parents are entirely absent, as in dead or long gone. It is not surprising that Victor, seeing himself as such a player, idolises his entirely absent father and grandfather, who loved and left their respective women.

The persistent conflict between Victor and his grandma comes out because of miscommunication, and difference in expectations, and also possibly because the grandmother, who loves the children in her care anyway, is a strange mad goblin.

The gran’s apartment, possibly located in the projects, is tiny, surely too small for these four people. I’m guessing the grandma sleeps in a kitchen drawer, seeing as she’s nice and tiny. The two brothers have to share a room due to lack of space, and beds, possibly. No one complains about any of this, but Victor’s altercations with his guardian keep bringing up the threat that he’ll either become homeless or a ward of the state. I can just imagine all those whitebread middle-class couples lining up, rabidly desperate to adopt a feisty 16 year old Hispanic kid.

He’d be fighting them off with a stick, surely.

Though it’s his story, there are plenty of other characters doing their thing on the sidelines. Judy’s younger brother is a chubby, tongue-tied romantic who wishes to court Victor’s sister, and watching his tentative steps towards her are painfully sweet. He’s so adorably clueless that your heart has to go out to him. If not then you might as well cut it out with a rusty box cutter, it’s of no use to you.

Do these kids just want sex? Victor’s friend Harold pursues Judy’s friend Melonie, with professional attention to detail and focus. But since he goes back for more I guess it’s ‘love’. The more frigidly prurient and uptight out there shouldn’t be terrified that any of the sexuality in the film is represented literally: there isn’t any Barely Legal action. The film’s focus is the problems that arise out of this incredible compulsion that overcomes kids once they hit puberty, not the sex itself.

Let’s face it, for this and a multitude of other reasons it makes the passage from adolescence to adulthood a very confusing time. These kids are old enough to have the desires and drives that the rest of us have, but not necessarily the experience or wisdom to make intelligent decisions regarding the fulfilment of these desires and those of other people. And since adults daily make really fucked up decisions in terms of who, how and when they have sex with people, we can’t really expect teenage kids to possess a wisdom that age alone doesn’t necessarily bring.

By bringing up these issues I hope I haven’t given the impression that the film is a conflict-ridden weighty examination of the dangers of teenage sexuality or the evils of urban life. It’s anything but. The tone is light throughout and there is much humour in the interactions between the various people. Victor’s pursuit of Judy, and her manipulations of him, and their eventual interactions have deeper reasons than those on the surface, but there is a gentle humanity to the proceedings that belies their seeming simplicity.

Victor, as played by Victor Rasuk, is a joy to behold. Whilst he starts off shaky in the scene with Donna, he becomes a really enjoyable presence as the film goes on. The charisma this kid possesses and the natural ability would, in an ideal world guarantee that he becomes a star. In this world, however, he’s probably going to be relegated to playing a Latino thug from the barrio in the umpteenth cop drama getting shot by our heroes in one of countless shootouts. He carries the film, modest as its scope is, and shows a genuine aptitude for this acting caper. He was a joy to behold, and I hope he keeps getting good work. I’ve heard that he is playing skateboarding legend Tony Alva in an upcoming flick called Lords of Dogtown, which could be the springboard he needs

The rest of the cast, with the exception of the grandma, whose performance is so surreal that it defies classification, all put in natural, genuine performances. But in all honesty they’re not asked to do much, but they do it extremely well. Acting, from what I know of it, isn’t a simple matter of turning a camera on and reciting some lines. Most people turn into idiots or stunned mullets in front of a camera. Trying to appear ‘natural’ (as in unaffected, uncontrolled) in film is as hard as any other achievement on film, and it’s to director Peter Sollet’s credit that he gets such wonderful work from his actors, most of whom have never acted in their lives.

Though they are thematically very different, this film reminded me very much of the Karyn Kusama film from a few years ago called Girlfight, which also followed the lives of people living in a similar milieu (though it was set in Brooklyn). The look and the feel of the film was very similar (I guess arising from the low budget, kitchen sink approach that they both used by necessity not choice), even if the angle of the two films were substantially different.

All in all I found this an immensely enjoyable experience, totally lacking in pretentiousness and preciousness, and fully immersed in its time and place, giving us a touchingly sweet look at the lives of some real people. Admittedly with all the boring bits taken out, which is the purpose of film, anyway. The director deserves credit both for what he includes as much as what he doesn’t: the film doesn’t pander to middle-class audiences, it doesn’t exploit its characters or scenarios, it doesn’t artificially generate drama with disingenuous conflict for the sake of it, and it doesn’t pretend to be anything but what it is: a sweet film

A definite lost gem.

7 ways in which that masturbation storyline should have been dropped out of 10

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"You'll always be known as Fat Donna's man. And that shit will always be funny. " - Raising Victor Vargas

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