Although independent films such as this have virtually no DVD extras, sometimes the subtleties of the film itself can more easily be grasped on the small screen than in the theater. I saw "Raising Victor Vargas" in both venues, and preferred the intimacy of the DVD.
"Juicy Judy", played by Judy Marte in Peter Sollett's 2003 independent film, "Raising Victor Vargas" has no intention of being impressed by the insouciant Victor (Victor Rasuk) of title fame. She's grown through adolescence in the poor area of New York's lower east side. She's remained aloof to the enticements that come to her because of her beauty and look of wariness. She prefers to spend her time with best friend Melonie (Melonie Diaz), talking about life and love; exasperated by how much she is approached by men and boys. She's drawn a shell about herself, her composure untouched, her lack of trust in anyone outside Melonie and her family is palpable. We see her early on with only one gesture of instantaneous emotion, and that is when she impulsively hugs and kisses her chubby little brother at the community pool. If Director Sollett missed anything in this movie, it is a better glimpse of Judy's family life, what things contributed to her sense of pride and why she is so comfortable in her aloneness, not falling prey to the syndrome that is pride and risk-taking by beautiful young girls.
We see Judy through the eyes of Victor Vargas. Victor appears to be much younger than he is - he's trying to live down a tryst with the "fat girl" Donna, in the neighborhood. Victor has been practicing his initial sexual moves with Donna, and, in the opening scene, they are clumsy and almost endearing. Less so is the speed with which he discards Donna. He needs to score with the beautiful Judy, who he sees at the neighborhood pool.
Undaunted by her declarations that "she has a man", he begins to pursue her, but in a manner that his own vulnerabilities show through. Judy begins to relax by having him around, senses that she can trust him, decides that he can at least be the brunt of others' advances to her, if he is her man. In a funny aside, friend Melonie shows absolutely no restraint with Victor's buddy, immediately beginning a teenage love affair.
Unlike his approach to Judy, Sollett allows us to see the manner in which Victor was raised, and it is through this understanding that we are drawn to him. Arrogant in his street persona, Victor is too open to not show his own fears and insecurities. He lives with his Grandma (the delightful Altagracia Guzman) and has to share a room in their crowded flat with younger sister Vicki (Krystal Roderiguez) and youngest brother Nino (Rasuk's brother Silvestre Rasuk)- all three are adolescents. It is obvious from the get go that the friction in the family is between Victor and the irascible Vicki and Victor and his grandma.
Raised on a peaceful farm in the Dominican Republic, Grandma tries hard to get used to city life. She has a straightforward way of dealing with indiscretions by the children. She is upset when Victor and Vicki fight over the phone, and installs a lock on the phone so that no one can use it. She's at her wits end as the children get older - any small indiscretion by Victor is cause for alarm, and she puts the fear of God in him by taking him to DCF and trying to give up her right to raise him. Although she has the grace to back down from her position, she's frightened all three kids by the lengths she is willing to go for her belief that they need to be a "nice family". She's instilled Catholic rituals in them, and all three accompany her to church. There is little doubt that she's had little education, and speaks English that is heavily accented. Grandma's Achilles heel is Nino, but then, Nino is so awkward, so loving and real, that it is hard for anyone to resist him. Nino is struggling with puberty, and a humorous incident of Grandma finding him masturbating in the bathroom is made all the more so by Grandma's insistence that it must be Victor who taught him to sin.
Victor's two worlds come together by his own design. Without a thought of what Judy will think of his family, or his family will think of Judy, he invites her to dinner. The awkwardness and awareness of the emotional ties between son and family and son and lover are illustrated beautifully by Sollett in a painful scenario that surprisingly, ends well.
Even if you've not recently lived with teenagers, you can sense the passage from the confused and insecure portrayal of early adolescence (Nino and Vicki) to the street-smart, tough talking but even more vulnerable 16 and older teens (Victor and Judy). You can feel the impact of poverty on the kids, but you can also see real life, not weighted down by crime and violence. You can sense how strong bonds are formed by the merest willingness of one kid to try to understand another kid, and to talk about what they are felling. You get a sense of the strength of respect between generations in Hispanic families and the retreat that the family provides from the outside world.
Sollett, previously having won awards for a short film, "Five Feet High and Rising", gives a marvelous novella (almost a pseudo-documentary) on the story of first love, on the powerful pull of family relationships, in a simple tale about real people. I hope he never loses his ability to tell a story as the budgets he is awarded get bigger and bigger.
The camera play is a little awkward, but the sequencing, editing, choices of backdrop and small bits of music are all gems in a realistic film that was one of my Top Ten in 2003.
Those who crave action and intricate plotting, or laugh out loud comedy will not find it in "Raising Victor Vargas", a rare little coming of age film with a superb cast of unknowns.
A definite must-see; you'll love the honesty of this film.