Raising Victor Vargas: Special Edition (2003)

In your face, we still see that you’re not as resistant.
— Judy (Judy Marte), commentary track, Raising Victor Vargas: Special Edition

I’m really fond of how the movie gets quieter.
— Pete Sollett, commentary track, Raising Victor Vargas: Special Edition

“I says, ‘I don’t understand what you talk, but let me talk. If you let me talk, I’ll be great.’ And he says, so nice and kind, ‘Yes, ma, I’m gonna let you let you do whatever you wanna do.’ After I say that, I say, ‘Oh my god, what I did!’ Maybe he don’t like it what I say. Pero, he give me a credit!” Altagracia Guzman’s enthusiasm on the commentary track for the new Special Edition of Raising Victor Vargas, is infectious. Cast as the grandmother, she came to the set with no professional experience, but a perfect understanding of the character.

The second DVD version of Raising Victor Vargas includes exactly what was missing from the first — a commentary track, rich in life and production stories from writer/director Pete Sollett, his primary cast, and Eve Vives, who co-wrote both this film and the short, Five Feet High and Rising. This film, based on Sollett’s experiences growing up in Brooklyn and made when he was an NYU student, uses many of the same performers and themes as Victor, and so its inclusion on the DVD is great news. You see how they have developed as artists and colleagues, and shows as well the group’s collective processes of thinking, communicating, and creating — or, as Sollett puts it, their development of an “emotional vocabulary.”

What makes Raising Victor Vargas especially 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, Victor’s younger brother) and their Dominican-born grandmother (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 elusive, familiar and fresh. This compelling combination emerges as much in Tim Orr’s nuanced handheld camerawork (he’s also worked with David Gordon Green, on George Washington and All the Real Girls) as in Sollett’s impressionistic structure and obviously painstaking work with his mostly inexperienced actors. 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.

As the performers remember for the DVD commentary track, Judy and Victor were uncomfortable with one another (or, as Vives says, “You didn’t like each other”). Six years ago, when they were making Five Feet High and Rising, he was 14 and she was 15, and they resisted their first kiss on screen: she thought he was cocky, she intimidated him, and the adults allowed them to work out their tensions, going so far as to incorporate them into the filmmaking. “You did think you were God’s gift to women, and you were very good at playing that,” says Vives.

Tracing Victor’s “raising,” his grudging reconciliation with other people’s expectations and even his efforts to be generous, 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 a problem 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 chatter. And she doesn’t say a word.