It is rare to find a film that defies one’s expectations as sweetly and satisfyingly as Raising Victor Vargas, a coming-of-age comedy-drama from first-time writer-director Peter Sollett. The surprise isn’t in the plot — that would be too easy. Rather, it’s in the subtle and convincing ways the characters grow and change.
Sixteen-year-old Victor Vargas (Victor Rasuk, who, like all the actors here, is a nonprofessional) is a skinny, jive-talking kid who lives in a tiny apartment on Manhattan’s Lower East Side with his younger brother, Nino (Rasuk’s real-life brother Silvestre); his sister, Vicki (Krystal Rodriguez); and his Dominican-born grandmother (Altagracia Guzman). With a typically adolescent mix of cockiness and conceit, Victor sees himself as an irresistible lothario. The only girl he has impressed so far, however, is “Fat Donna” (Donna Maldonado) on the next floor. To salvage his reputation after being caught with her, he sets his sights on “Juicy Judy” (Judy Marte), the sophisticated-looking beauty every guy wants to bag.
In fact, Judy is highly distrustful of men and puts up an icy front to keep them at bay. When Victor proves impervious to rejection, she decides to pretend to be his girlfriend as a way of keeping more aggressive boys away. Victor is too naïve to recognize the strategy.
Meanwhile, Judy’s younger brother, Carlos (Wilfree Vasquez), has an enormous crush on the clearly uninterested Vicky. As clueless as Victor, Carlos refuses to give up, following Vicky around like a puppy. That doesn’t sit well with Grandmother Vargas, who is convinced that Victor is leading his siblings astray. When she catches Nino masturbating in the bathroom, she blames Victor. In the movie’s funniest — and most heartbreaking — scene, Mrs. Vargas drags the children down to the family services office and tries to unload Victor on the agency. Victor is shattered.
These relatively inexperienced actors are able to peel away the layers and slowly expose what’s inside their characters in a surprisingly convincing manner. Special mention must go to the two Rasuks, Rodriguez and Guzman, none of whom hits a false note.
Several of the cast, including Rasuk and Marte, appeared in a short film Sollett wrote and directed three years ago, Five Feet High and Rising, which won short-filmmaking prizes in 2000 at both the Sundance Film Festival and the Cannes Film Festival’s Cinéfondation Section. Five Feet was written as an autobiographical take on Sollett’s own childhood growing up in Bensonhurst, but he reset the story in a Hispanic neighborhood after being blown away by the Latino kids who came in to audition. The short was then expanded into Raising Victor Vargas.
Though Sollett provided his cast with a detailed breakdown of the story, he wanted them to improvise their dialogue, based on how they would react to similar situations. After a month honing their characters and dialogue with Sollett, the kids were ready to shoot. The result is quite extraordinary.