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Raising Victor Vargas

Rated R, 88 min. Directed by Peter Sollett. Starring Victor Rasuk, Judy Marte, Melonie Diaz, Altagracia Guzman, Silvestre Rasuk, Krystal Rodriguez, Kevin Rivera.

REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., June 6, 2003

The camera fixes first on a 16-year-old named Victor (Victor Rasuk), who is flexing his abs and licking his lips. Then, on a teenage girl – the kids in their Lower East Side neighborhood call her Fat Donna – who is stretched out on a bed in anticipation. There are no parents around, no teachers, no bosses: no one to answer to but their own raging libidos. The setup could be lifted straight from Kids, Larry Clark’s 1995 film about aimless NYC teens drinking and sleeping their way toward self-destruction. But, thankfully, first-time writer/director Peter Sollett is an altogether gentler, more graceful filmmaker; he too is keen on examining the coming-of-age process of young, sometimes-neglected kids, but does so without Clark’s nasty, nihilistic bite. Victor never gets to taste the fruits of Fat Donna – his best friend Harold (Rivera), hollering to him from the sidewalk, drags Victor to the pool instead – but word gets out anyway (his little sister hilariously taunts, "You’ll always be Fat Donna’s man!"). Victor needs to salvage his (largely self-created) reputation fast; enter cat-eyed Judy (Marte), who initially rebuffs Victor’s advances. The two push and pull – the swaggering Victor always licking his lips and hoping to squire her off to his bed, a standoffish Judy always brushing him aside – but it’s all posturing, really. The actors convey the soft spots under Victor and Judy’s battle-ready exteriors with a vulnerability that belies both their age and experience (they starred in a short by Sollett, their sole prior film experience). Marte and Rasuk are joined by a cast teeming with inexperienced yet remarkably powerful performers, including Rodriguez as Victor’s sullen sister and Diaz as Judy’s best friend, ducking in the shadows of Judy’s striking beauty. They’re all fumbling toward their first understandings of adult coupling (with far more fumbling than coupling going on), and it’s a mark of both the actors’ maturity and the director’s discretion that that premise never feels exploitative or leering. Running parallel to Victor’s sexual coming-of-age is his emotional maturation. His Dominican grandmother is raising Victor and his brother and sister on her own; she (Guzman) threatens to throw Victor out on the streets out of fear he is corrupting his younger siblings. In truth, he’s not – and it’s heartwrenching to watch the cocky 16-year-old crumble into a child terrified of abandonment. Raising Victor Vargas presents a group very rarely represented in film: the legions of grandparents raising their children’s children. Their grandmother is so far removed, culturally and generationally, from her charges that when grandmother and grandchildren do connect – in brief, giddy fits – the heart swells. Beautifully shot by Tim Orr (a frequent David Gordon Green collaborator with the cinematographer’s equivalent of the Midas touch), Sollett’s first feature is a small, but indelible picture, one that approaches the most universal of themes – first love, confused hormones, parental clashes – with originality. (Raising Victor Vargas first played Austin during the SXSW Film Festival.)
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