It is rare to find a film that defies one's expectations as sweetly and satisfyingly as this coming-of-age comedy-drama from first-time feature writer-director Peter Sollett. The surprise isn't in the plot -- that would be too easy -- but, rather, in the extraordinarily subtle and convincing ways the characters grow and change before our very eyes.
Sixteen-year-old Victor Vargas (Victor Rasuk, who, like all the actors in this film, is a non-professional) 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), sister Vicki (Krystal Rodriguez) and Dominican-born grandmother (Altagracia Guzman) who, for reasons never specified, is raising her three grandchildren. With that typical 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, and in order 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 her rejections, she decides to pretend to be his girlfriend as a way of keeping the even more aggressive, more threatening boys away. Victor is too naive to see the truth.
Meanwhile, Judy's younger brother Carlos (Wilfree Vasquez) has an enormous crush on Victor's clearly uninterested 12-year-old sister Vicki. As clueless as Victor, Carlos refuses to give up, following Vicki around like a puppy dog. That doesn't sit well with old-world grandmother Vargas, who is convinced that Victor is leading his siblings astray. When she catches Nino masturbating in the bathroom, she again blames Victor. The funniest -- and most heartbreaking -- scene in the film finds the grandmother dragging the children down to the family services office and trying to unload Victor on the agency. Victor is shattered.
Not surprisingly, most of the film's characters reveal themselves to be deeper and more complex than they first appear. What is surprising, however, is how these relatively inexperienced actors are able to slowly peel away the layers and expose what's inside in such a convincing manner. They are beyond wonderful. Several of the cast, including Rasuk and Marte, had appeared in a short film that Sollett wrote and directed three years ago. That film, titled Five Feet High and Rising, won the Jury Prize in Short Filmmaking at both the 2000 Sundance Film Festival and the Cannes Film Festival's Cinéfondation Section.
Sollett had intended the short as an autobiographical take on his own childhood growing up in Bensonhurst, but he completely 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. While all of the performances are good, special mention must go to the two Rasuks, as well as Rodriguez and Guzman, none of whom hits a false note. Vasquez and Melonie Diaz as Judy's best friend are also terrific.
What makes this picture even more remarkable is the fact that, while Sollett provided cast members with a detailed breakdown of the story -- a kind of narrative guide -- he wanted them to improvise their own dialogue, based on how they would react to a similar situation in their own lives. After a month honing their characters and dialogue with Sollett, the kids were ready to shoot. The result is quite extraordinary.
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