Brooklyn-born, New York University graduate Peter Sollett’s debut feature, Raising Victor Vargas, is as refreshing a movie experience as they come. Though he originally developed his screenplay in Sundance workshops with the intention of shooting in the Italian and Jewish Brooklyn neighborhood of Bensonhurst, the actors he found made him alter the setting to the Latino-heavy Lower East Side of Manhattan. The movie’s potency seems unimaginable without this change. Instead of lower-income, second generation immigrants appearing as the desperate poor or the noble impoverished, not to mention as gangsters, petty thieves, or drug addicts, here they are just people – funny, ridiculous, selfish, often short-sighted, but at heart, decent people.
The story is centered around young, swaggering, lip-licking, head-cocking Victor Vargas (Victor Rasuk). He has a typically confrontational sibling relationship with his younger sister, Vicki (scene-stealing Krystal Rodriguez). As soon as Vicki discovers that Victor is sleeping with upstairs neighbor, "Fat Donna" (Donna Maldonado), she’s on the phone circulating the succulent gossip. Victor sees his life raft in much coveted neighborhood beauty, "Juicy Judy" (Judy Marte). If he can seduce her into being his girlfriend, he can deflect the Donna rumor as Vicky’s libel. Unbeknownst to Victor, Judy has her own use for him – to ward off her many boorish suitors. To Judy, Victor is just another horndog, but he is mildly better than the guys trying to stick their tongues into her ear from all the way across the street. As Victor and Judy engage in a game of romantic feints and parries, so do two other hopeful Romeos. Victor’s friend, Harold (Kevin Rivera), is in hot pursuit of Judy’s cousin, Melonie (Melonie Diaz) while Judy’s little brother, Carlos (Wilfree Vasquez), chases after the eye-rolling Vicki, who just wants to be left alone to watch television. Amidst all of them is a minefield –Victor’s puritanical Grandma (Altagracia Guzman).
Every single member of the cast stands out, and Manhattan’s Lower East Side has never appeared more vibrant (as shot by George Washington’s Tim Orr). All of the actors look perfectly ordinary – there are no models here – but they become more beautiful as you get to know them, just the way your friends do. And the performances come with amazing naturalism. Sollett has a gentle touch that allows moments like Victor’s Grandma washing the hair of his younger brother Nino (Silvestre Rasuk) and Nino playing Bach’s Concerto in F Minor for Grandma on the piano to be tender without feeling mawkish. With Carlos and Vicki, Sollett can be cute without being maudlin. He also has a way with actors that elicits genuine emotion on the screen. He gets the camera in close to capture every nuanced gesture crossing their faces and you can see the gears churning in the characters’ heads. The movie’s themes are communicated visually and with quiet immediacy.
About those themes – Raising Victor Vargas is about the greatest font of adolescent motivation: insecurity. Even as Judy and Melonie try to escape macho hokum, Victor turns it up. Sollett finds a source of persistent humor throughout the movie in constantly but lovingly undermining Victor’s bravado. These teenagers seek self-affirmation through a romantic other, but, ironically, to do so they have to risk their very sense of self-worth. Every move is a careful negotiation of the boundaries of intimacy; every game is navigating a ritual to earn trust. Failure is magnified into the sphere of the catastrophic. A scene in which Carlos, having played all his cards, cries in front of Vicki becomes touching, monumental tragedy. Raising Victor Vargas instantly becomes an early frontrunner for the best picture of the year.