The opening shot of Raising Victor Vargas makes like a Calvin Klein commercial. There’s Victor (Victor Rasuk) posing without a shirt against a nondescript wall. He’s playing it cool and sexy; Victor is the man. But then the camera pulls back to show Donna (Donna Maldonado), not the most attractive girl in the world. The implication here is that Victor isn’t the stud he thinks he is. Like most teenage boys, sex is on his mind, even if it means doing it with a girl who is so obviously using him. Victor has two sides: the strutting peacock he shows to the world and the vulnerable child who’s going through the awkward motions of growing up.
An expansion of director Peter Sollett’s short film Five Feet High and Rising, Raising Victor Vargas uses New York’s lower east side as the backdrop for two teenagers to find love and themselves. Victor lives with his grandmother (Altagracia Guzman) and two younger siblings (Silvestre Rasuk and Krystal Rodriguez). Victor acts like a player but really he’s just trying to grow up and show some semblance of normalcy. One summer afternoon he introduces himself to Judy (Judy Marte) and proceeds to woo her despite her initial objections. But as summer goes on, the pair’s relationship slowly begins to blossom.
Raising Victor Vargas captures the awkwardness of adolescence like few films have. All of the young characters are filled with confusion about what they should and should not adhere to. They’re looking for identity in themselves as the adult world has either abandoned or betrayed them. In some instances you don’t know which. Victor and Judy want to be adults. But they also know they have much to learn. Victor gets in petty fights with his sister of the “did not,” “did too,” variety. Victor hangs out at the pool during the scorching hot summer afternoons, a juvenile way to scout for ladies. Judy is more mature in her attitude. She understands she’s in that phase that Britney Spears sings about, not a girl but not yet a woman. Judy has no desire to hook up with just any guy. She wants to trust someone first. So she takes the power position in her relationship with Victor. Judy wants to take it slow and get to know him before she gets serious.
Sollett leaves many questions left unanswered. Things like what happened to Victor’s parents. Living with his two younger siblings and his grandmother, the only mention of Victor’s parents comes from an old wedding photograph in a cracked picture frame. The same mystery surrounds Judy. By her actions, there’s a feeling that at some point in her life Judy was betrayed. My guess was that it was something to do with her father as Judy is most uncomfortable around men. But my guess is only that. Sollett leaves it to the viewer to fill in the back story for themselves. He and the actors bring enough to the table so that you get a genuine sense of knowing them, but you’re left with a yearning for more.
This wouldn’t have worked if it weren’t for strong acting, which comes from an unlikely source: the inexperienced. In the title role, Soluk is a mix of suave and vulnerable, mature and young. The same can be said for Marte’s take on Judy. But my favorite of the cast is Guzman, who plays the wise and out-of-touch grandmother. She’s the sweet old bird whose natural responses are either insightful, idealistic or a mix of both. Without experience and only a loose script to go on, the cast exudes an appealing rawness that I doubt would have worked with more seasoned actors. The emotions feel so real that you can’t help but get wrapped up in the characters. And that’s what’s so wonderful and refreshing about Raising Victor Vargas. It captures the feeling of adolescence, a period we all go through. But the characters are so real, it’s also a unique experience from which we’re invited along to witness.
Raising Victor Vargas Gallery