Raising Victor Vargas (2003)

2003-03-28 (Limited release)

The opening shots of a preening teen prepare us for the worst: are we in for another sleazy trudge through Larry Clark territory? The camera lingers on a shirtless young Latino, striking poses and blowing kisses. In bed awaits his prey, a portly girl itching for action. Aside from some sweaty foreplay, however, there’s no prurient payoff. As our player moves in for the kill, a hollering friend from the street below blows the mood — and his cover. Caught in the company of “Fat Donna,” the nasty neighborhood slut, the discombobulated Victor (Victor Rasuk) scampers out, his dalliance foiled and his reputation potentially in danger.

So much for suavity. Peter Sollett’s Raising Victor Vargas fittingly fools us into thinking we were about to see a different kind of movie. So too does its titular lothario try to con us and the world. High on hormones and himself, Victor doesn’t doubt that he’s the smoothest operator on the block. It’s a played-out schtick that no one could fall for. His pose, and its gradual shedding, become this sweet movie’s irresistible hook.

The façade, at the outset, is impenetrable. Hanging out at the public pool, Victor eyes “Juicy Judy” (Judy Marte), local ice queen and budding man-hater. Undeterred by her dagger looks and the spreading word of his tryst with Fat Donna, he makes his move — and promptly strikes out. The rejection hardly dissuades the relentless Victor. Ever the player, he devotes himself to winning over the aloof object of his desire.

Not that he’ll get help from anyone. His friend Harold (Kevin Rivera) is too busy chasing after Judy’s pal, Melonie (Melonie Diaz). Back at home, Victor’s younger sister and nemesis, Vicki (Krystal Rodriguez), is glued to the tube and stuck in an unwanted courtship with the hapless Carlos (Wilfree Vasquez). Meanwhile, Nino (Silvestre Rasuk), Victor’s goody two-shoes brother, tries to balance the dueling demands of his choirboy image and encroaching puberty.

And then there’s Grandma (Altagracia Guzman). The benevolent dictator of the Vargas’s fractious roost, Grandma keeps the kids on a tight leash, or tries to. Despite her best efforts, the New World’s vices keep creeping into her defiantly Old World domain, be it calls from Vicki’s would-be suitor or the damning trace of Judy’s lipstick on a glass of water. As the oldest and friskiest of the three, it’s Victor who bears the brunt of her puritanical wrath.

Stuck in a two-bedroom apartment with the family, Victor barely has any space to duck from Grandma’s harangues. The cramped quarters seem even more oppressive with the New York heat, deftly heightened by cinematographer Tim Orr’s stifling close-ups. (Between this sultry vision and the Malick-ian idylls of All the Real Girls, Orr gets my vote for indie DP stud of the year.) It’s a world that invites posturing: there are so few walls to hide behind that you have to build your own.

In the escalating battle between Victor and Grandma, he blinks first. After being carted off to a social welfare office, where Grandma attempts to dump him, Victor undergoes an attitude adjustment. I’m not sure which is the movie’s most heartbreaking shot: the close-up of Victor quietly sobbing, traumatized by the episode, or the following shot of him in bed, blocked from view by a makeshift drape — the only privacy he’ll ever get in his home.

Victor’s “privacy curtain” is just one of many intimate touches that give Sollett’s movie its bracing authenticity. The first-time filmmaker had originally intended to make a film in his native Bensonhurst, a primarily Jewish and Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn, but couldn’t find the right cast. When he and producer Eva Vives started posting casting flyers in their East Village locale, they noticed that the best auditions were by Latino teenagers. Thus the movie was moved to the Lower East Side.

The neighborhood may not have been his first choice, but Sollett has made a loving snapshot of a community that may be disappearing. Although it avoids lapsing into unearned elegy, Sollett’s evocation of Victor’s milieu is laced with the spirit of testimony. With its too-close tenements, thin walls, and clamorous streets, the neighborhood feels unabashedly anachronistic. People yell up to friends’ windows; gossip fans out with the speed of electricity. For all its keen observation, the movie is admirably matter-of-fact about its ethnographic aspect: Sollett never fetishizes his setting or subjects.

At once affectless and affecting, Raising Victor Vargas is remarkably self-possessed for a first-time feature. Peopled by charismatic non-actors, it has all the charms of improvisation with few of the indulgences; it breathes, but not too heavily. Sollett’s movie constructs a world that’s convincingly lived-in, brimming with backstories and family myths. It’s that history that Victor has to contend with, and that Grandma clings to like a talisman.

Perhaps ending on too pat a note, the movie at least errs on the side of being too generous in outlook. Is innocence making a comeback? Filmmakers like Sollett, Wes Anderson, David Gordon Green, and P.T. Anderson have brought an invigorating earnestness to contemporary American cinema. Victor’s evolution mimics their emergence: the cool poses of the past give way to a refreshing emotional directness. Signaling the beginnings of maturity, it’s a humanistic sensibility that makes one feel positively giddy about the future — both Victor’s and the movies’.