Judge Diane Wild enjoys it when teen films keep it real.
"You ain't been with a man until you've been with me."—Victor Vargas
What if movies about teens went beyond gross-out humor? What if films with inner-city Latino youth didn't focus solely on violence or drugs? What if adolescent actors weren't all named Hilary or Lindsay? If those planets aligned, we'd have more movies like Raising Victor Vargas.
Facts of the Case
Teenaged Victor Vargas (Victor Rasuk) is a ladies man…in his own mind, if not yet in reality. He lives with his Dominican grandmother (Altagracia Guzman), who fears Victor will turn out like his absent father and grandfather, whose wandering eyes took them away from their families and left heartbreak behind. She tries to keep a tight rein on him and worries about his influence on her "baby" Nino (Silvestre Rasuk), who looks up to his big brother and is starting to spend way too much time in the bathroom. Half-sister Vicki's only hobbies are watching TV and exchanging heartfelt insults with Victor.
At the local swimming pool one day, Victor falls for "Juicy Judy" (Judy Marte), a gorgeous girl who has no use for the crude boys who lust after her. After a botched attempt to play God's gift to women in front of her, Victor comes up with a plot to meet her again through a trade with her younger brother Carlos. Victor agrees to set Carlos up with Vicki if Carlos introduces him properly to Judy.
Eventually Judy begins to succumb to Victor—at first, only for his use as "bug spray" to repel the other boys, but then for his real self.
Raising Victor Vargas began its life as a 30-minute film called "Five Feet High and Rising," which co-writers Peter Sollett and Eva Vives cast by putting up fliers around New York City's Lower East Side and trolling public school talent shows. The actors' own life experiences helped shape the resulting feature film. The results are natural and charming performances in a story that may not be gritty, but feels real. Raising Victor Vargas makes us care about these characters and where they end up.
They live in a world of poverty and overcrowding—not to mention R-rated language—but there's an innocence to them. Victor's stumblings towards sexuality create conflict with his grandmother, but her fears of depravity are unfounded. She is trying desperately to keep what's left of her fragmented family strong, but can't see beyond the sibling squabbling and awakening sexuality to see that these are basically good kids.
By the end, it takes Victor's emerging confidence to really pull the family together while maintaining respect for the woman he obviously adores. "She's my mother and my father. She's both," he tells a social worker when Grandma tries to turn him out of the house in frustration. That's when Victor's siblings wordlessly show their support, proving the grandmother's success at forming a strong, non-traditional family.
The beauty of Raising Victor Vargas is the hesitant and awkward way the teen relationships develop. This isn't the usual boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-wins-girl-again formula. Victor and Judy have stops and starts, steps forward and back, as they learn how to relate to each other. Their struggles are self-conscious, touching, funny, and romantic.
Judy and her best friend Melonie have sworn off boys—beautiful Judy because she is constantly accosted with crude offers, and plainer Melonie out of solidarity with her friend.
There are hints of more, though. There are no fathers in this film. Victor's has left behind a string of scattered children, Vicki's has disappeared, and Judy says her family is better off without hers. When Melonie admits that she has started to date Victor's friend Harold, Judy asks: "How do you know you can trust him?" It's not a challenge, she genuinely wants to know, but all Melonie can do is shrug. The movie has a subtle comment to make about a generation of kids who have no relationship role models.
The bravado of the boys in Raising Victor Vargas hides their inexperience and awkwardness. So does the female version of bravado, the scornful attitude that masks their uncertainty.
Victor's breakthroughs with Judy come when he lets down his façade. He acknowledges he is nervous around her, then later shows he wants her to see him as he really is, warts and all. Exposing his vulnerability finally allows him to earn her trust.
This is a good-looking DVD transfer with no noticeable flaws, boasting warm colors and good contrast. The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio works fine for this quiet, dialogue-driven film with little incidental music.
The extras add substantial depth to the film experience. "Five Feet High and Rising," the original short, explores some of the same themes and is a great glimpse into additional facets of the characters. Its companion featurette gives some background on Victor Rasuk and Judy Marte, shows how their real lives inspired parts of the feature-length version, and reports their reaction to the film's success. The informative and lively commentary is a discussion between director and writer Peter Sollett and his co-writer Eva Vives, along with cast members Rasuk, Marte, Altagracia Guzman, and Melonie Diaz. Other extras include production stills and previews.
Raising Victor Vargas: Special Edition is an understated gem worth the investment for your DVD collection. At the least, you'll want to get to know these characters through a rental.
Not guilty. All involved in Raising Victor Vargas are free to go, under strict instruction to continue doing quality work.
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• Director, writer, and cast commentary
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