“I guess you wouldn’t know how it feels to get nervous around certain people”
I really enjoyed Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, but seeing it at the Toronto Film Festival with director Peter Sollett in attendance only made me want to see his debut, the acclaimed Raising Victor Vargas, more. This fact slipped my mind for the next couple years, though, until HBO came out with a new show called “How to Make It in America” starring that film’s leading newcomer Victor Rasuk. The itch to check it out came back as a result and I am so glad it did. Sollett’s second film is fun and endearing, but it is his first work that shows the amount of talent within him. A true indie with all unproven actors—how great is it that the end credits actually start with ‘Introducing’ and all the names follow—it is heavily reliant on their performances and the script behind them. Vargas is a true gem; so authentic, naturally funny, and both heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time.
What struck me by Sollett during his Q&A session after Nick and Norah was the exuberance he expressed for his hometown city of New York. The man lives and breathes within that metropolis, using music from the bands he goes to see and filming it all on location. So, it did not surprise me to find out that Vargas’s cast was all born and bred there as well. He plucked them from the neighborhood and let them inhabit a world they were familiar with, letting the acting come after the real life experience. All artifice is stripped away because we are allowed to believe these performers are the characters they are portraying—without question. The film takes us onto the streets of the Lower East Side and we become privy to the goings on of the Latino youth culture. These kids are in their element at the local pool, walking to adjacent apartment buildings and just calling up to get a friend’s attention, and passing by the miscreant lotharios as they attempt to pick up women in the most obscene ways. This is New York City and that goes a long way towards the absolute realism of the movie.
Victor Vargas is like so many kids growing up with the constraints of a troubled upbringing. He lives amongst the crime and the ambivalence to humanity, but he is not one of those monsters prowling the street because of a loving, if confused and out of her element, grandmother. She has kept he and two of his siblings—the sister from a different father and the brother from a man that had up to five wives—in a lifestyle formed around love and God. Nino, the youngest, is still a bit naïve to the world and the mama’s boy going to church and playing the piano for the one adult that has ever really cared for him while Vicki is at the cusp of cutting through the façade and seeing the rough and tumble ways of the world away from the couch she so frequently inhabits. Victor, though, is old enough to now be on the streets, making connections and needing to break through and create a life for himself as a man. The boy has a huge heart, but also an ego that needs to be massaged and bolstered, especially after the early revelation he has been having sex with the local fat girl. He so wants to be a ladies man, yet his inherent nervousness and fear of rejection keep him from being the jerk all the others around him have no trouble being.
As a result, the point in life he is at is crucial to how his future is formed. With a grandmother ingrained by the old-school customs of her Dominican upbringing, she doesn’t comprehend the changing tides of society and is unable to see the gray areas between the black and white. Ruling with a strict hand, she has the potential of being the singular cause that pushes her boy to the dark side, without a chance of coming back. Throwing him on the streets due to advice he gives his siblings to help them grow—advice that she believes is polluting their pure souls—can only make this emotional boy break and become defeated. At some point you need to let go of that baby you wish you can have for eternity and trust that the children you raised are moral enough to always have love at the center of their actions. Victor has that, and despite his transgressions and desire to be cool in the minds of the neighborhood boys, he wants to live that way. Perhaps he goes after ‘Juicy’ Judy to recover some credibility after the Fat Donna fiasco, but he is persistent because he really has feelings for her. The image adjustor may be the catalyst to work up the nerve and finally say hello, but the feelings were always there.
Sollett has a deft hand and ability to let his cast take over. There are some stunning moments—shot with static framing—beautiful for what the camera is capturing rather than what tricks it is creating. When the Vargas family goes to church to light candles for a rebirth to their family, you can’t help but feel the power of the scene and the connection they have together. Altagracia Guzman, as the grandmother, is fantastic as this matriarch doing her best in a country with cultures she just doesn’t quite understand. When maternal instincts take over, one has to wonder if she is even acting or really becoming the guardian these youngsters need to stay on the right path. Melonie Diaz has come into her own as an actress at present and it is wonderful to see the innocence and warm grace here from her pure naturalism in front of the camera, and Judy Marte, who plays Victor’s love interest Judy, is very effective as the conflicted young woman, unable to trust men due to father issues that are only eluded to. And that is one strength of the film, its simplicity to allow us to infer things, such as that, without needing to hit us over the head.
The biggest reason for its excellence, though, is from leading man Victor Rasuk. I’ll admit that his charisma almost goes too far in his new HBO show, but watching where it all began here shows how good he really is. Carrying it all on his shoulders, Rasuk must do everything, from being the cocksure smooth-talking comedian to the misjudged and pained young man that still needs the love and approval of his family. Grandma always tells him that she is all he has, but only when he turns the table and lets her know that they are all she has do we understand the real theme to the film as being his becoming the man of the house. She has done all she can to raise him to be a responsible adult. Raising Victor Vargas, due to its star making central performance, is about him realizing that it is time to grow up and do the right thing. Regardless of the missteps along the way, however, he eventually finds his potential for compassion and honesty, traits that will help allow him to rise up higher than the easy ways out an inner city culture can give him, leading to a life of familial obligation and real happiness.
Raising Victor Vargas 10/10 | ★ ★ ★ ★