At first it looks like another light-hearted slice of life in sunny New York – have you noticed how the Big Apple is never seen in winter weather conditions these days, from Sex and the City’s perennial spring to those insipid rom-coms set in the former Gotham city? But Raising Victor Vargas is different fare, and this surprisingly good indie shines for other reasons beyond not looking like a Gap advert.
Directed and written with sensitivity and rare honesty by first timer Peter Sollett, who developed Raising Victor Vargas from his graduation short Five Foot High and Rising, the story is set in the impoverished but character-rich Lower East Village community where Dominican teenager Victor Vargas (played by Victor Rasuk), is trying his best to pull the pretty girl on the block, Judy (Judy Marte, a warts-and-all Jennifer Lopez) to give a boost to his reputation. It turns out she is much more vulnerable than the boys in the hood had imagined and Victor gradually wins her over.
All this, however, is only the pretext to creating a coming-of-age tale from a contemporary and realist platform without the usual ghetto grit that has become a staple of films looking for street cred. Raising Victor Vargas’s credibility stems from the real emotions you witness on the screen rather than preconceived ideas of ethnicity and adolescent sexual awakenings, and in that sense it stands on a class of its own as an American film.
Sollett concentrates on one aspect of a ‘latino’ teenager’s life that really plays an important part in his upbringing: his family. He shares a roof with his grandmother (Altagracia Guzman, a seamstress in real life), who raises him, his brother Nino (Silvestre Rasuk) and sister Melonie (Melonie Diaz) in a cramped, colourful flat where the children’s hormones are starting to shock the old, Catholic lady, who steals the show with her naturalness and precise coming timing.
While the humour keeps the narrative fresh and afloat, the drama gives it some weight to balance the story out. What really enriches the film, though, is the method in which it was made. The production cast real actors from local schools, who besides not having formal acting training, appear not to have had much exposure to film either. They were not given the script, even though there was one developed at the Sundance Institute and the Cannes Film Festival Cinefondation programme which director and crew followed. The orchestrated improvisation results in moments of beautiful authenticity.
Raising Victor Vargas is potentially a landmark film because it bravely evades the formula that infects so much of current indie americana. It doesn’t overemphasise style and frantic camera work, MTV style – the cinematographer opted for smoother camera movements and the editing holds the scenes to perfect length. It is a film that brims with warmth and perceptiveness, boasts broad cross-over appeal and might just turn out to be an indie classic.