Raising Victor Vargas (2003)

Some films repay a second viewing. Raising Victor Vargas, a small-scale, thoughtful, barely seen first feature by Peter Sollett, pays off splendidly. It’s also good to see the first time, and thanks to Columbia’s new, sans-extras DVD, many more viewers will have that chance than during its limited theatrical release.

What makes Victor so special and rewarding are its details — in composition, rhythm, and especially, characterization. The film opens on 16-year-old Victor (Victor Rasuk) posing. Cocking his hip and caressing his chest, he gazes steadfastly at the camera, plainly seductive in his own mind, more likely a little corny in yours. The shot cuts to the object of his look, “Fat Donna” (Donna Maldonado). She’s his downstairs neighbor, good a quick ego boost. As he leans in to kiss her, he sees a Polaroid on her nightstand, a picture of the two of them, looking intimate. Victor remonstrates. “I’m a private person,” he says, “I like to keep shit on the low.”

As Donna attempts to smooth his ruffled feathers, Victor’s cover is completely blown. His buddy Harold (Kevin Rivera) yells up from the street, repeatedly, until Victor pokes his head out the window, revealing to Harold and Victor’s nosy sister Vicky (Krystal Rodriguez) that he is, as she puts it, “Fat Donna’s man.” This sends Victor into something of a panic, as he’s working a player’s rep. He grabs his snapshot and races downstairs, hoping to head off the phone call he knows Vicky’s making. Indeed. She’s so stubborn that his only recourse is to drop the old rotary phone out the window. No matter: as soon as he’s huffed out the door, she’s on the portable, rejoining the conversation he interrupted, spreading word of his indiscretion.

In an effort to salvage his good name, the next morning, Victor’s prowling the public pool in his Lower East Side neighborhood, where he spots and directly approaches “Juicy Judy” (Judy Marte) and her friend Melonie (Melonie Diaz). Judy, however, resists, and so begins Victor’s “raising,” as he comes to understand that his relationships are more complicated than projections of his own immediate desires. This means he has to negotiate, not only with Vicky and Judy, but also with his younger brother Nino (Silvestre Rasuk) and their Dominican-born grandma (Altagracia Guzman), an old-school sort who tries her best to maintain order in their tiny, crowded apartment.

Victor’s story is at once mundane and delicate, familiar and fresh. This compelling combination emerges as much in Tim Orr’s nuanced camerawork (he’s also worked with David Gordon Green, on George Washington and All the Real Girls) as in director Sollett’s impressionistic structure and obviously painstaking work with his mostly inexperienced actors. Based on Solett’s own award-winning short film, Five Feet High and Rising (made when he was an NYU student), Victor uses many of the same performers, which means they’ve worked together, on this material, literally for years.

In the press notes, Sollett describes the process this way: “I started by deciding not to give them a script.” Though he and the crew did have one (developed at Sundance, no less), he had the cast rehearse for a month before shooting, in order to hone their “imaginative capability to detach from reality and resign themselves to the situation before them in a scene.” While this may sound more like therapy than filmmaking, the result is a subtle, unfussy first feature.

Tracing Victor’s “raising,” his grudging reconciliation with other people’s expectations, the film suggests that such a process is both common and extraordinary, as it is for everyone. Victor’s first inkling that his self-image is suspect comes with that rejection at the pool. From here, he endeavors to get a proper introduction to Judy via her younger brother (who demands, in return, an introduction to Vicky, at whose feet he promptly vomits, being too nervous to converse). Victor courts Judy with awkward reverence, granting her the “space” she demands, inviting her home for supper, and defending her against his grumpy grandma.

In one memorably simple sequence, Victor, eager to impress, buys Judy a “Homies” action figure (the one that pops out of the machine happens to be in a wheelchair); leaving him in the street outside the convenience store (“You call me, right?” he asks repeatedly), Judy takes the toy home and places it thoughtfully on her dresser. This brief, affecting moment says as much about her self-understanding as any multiple-minutes of standard teenflick chat. And she doesn’t say a word.