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USA 2003
Directed by
Peter Sollett
88 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Sharon Hurst
4.5 stars

Raising Victor Vargas

Synopsis: In Manhattan’s Lower East Side 74 year old Grandma (Altagracia Guzman) brings up Victor Vargas (Victor Rasuk), his younger brother Nino (Silvestre Rasuk) and their kid sister Vicki (Krystal Rodriguez). Grandma desperately wants to protect her brood from the troubles of teenage life, but as Victor’s exploits with girls begin to affect the whole family, conflict arises, with Grandma seeing Victor as the cause of all the children’s dubious behaviour. After setting his sights on Judy Ramirez (Judy Marte), Victor must learn some hard lessons - that he is not the Cassanova he sees himself as, and that he has a lot of growing up to do.

Raising Victor Vargas is an understated gem that captures adolescence and the delicate balance between teens and the older generation in a way I’ve not seen on film before.

The realism of this film is like a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. The opening scene sets the mood for everything that follows – a close-up of Victor’s body as he licks his lips and strips for his latest conquest, a girl who is wonderfully fat and will cause great embarrassment for Victor, who fancies himself as a ladies’ man. Victor’s best friend Harold (Kevin Rivera) is pimple-city, and the boys’ attempts to pick up two rather aloof girls at the swimming pool are painfully, yet sympathetically, portrayed. These are all real kids, with real bodies, not the California body-beautifuls Hollywood holds up as an image model in its films.

Originally written by the 26 year old Sollett as an autobiographical work to be set in Bensonhurst, the predominantly Italian and Jewish neighbourhood where he grew up, the director couldn't find the type of actors he wanted and so transposed his story to the Lower East Side, a Latino area where he lived at the time. Working over a two year period with his actors, Sollett incorporated aspects of their lives into his film and this methodology no doubt contributes to the complete credibility of every character. The actors were not given an exact script at the outset, but were encouraged to improvise, and then draw upon their discoveries, during shooting. Again, this makes for authenticity and the feeling that we are privileged witnesses to a slice of actual life, something which is particularly evident in the character and speech of Grandma.

For all Victor’s Latino machismo and posturing, there is also a devoted familial side and an extreme vulnerability to his character that will, at least for some, makes him adorable. This is a film to be savoured, moment by moment. With humour, affection, and authenticity, Raising Victor Vargas is perhaps the surprise cinema find of the year!




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