Boys – and girls and grandma – in the ‘hood
Aspen Times Staff Writer
“Raising Victor Vargas” is a gritty film, filled with macho cruelty and anger, set in the Latino projects of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The story centers around Victor Vargas, a tough 17-year-old looking to establish his identity in the neighborhood.
So we know, then, where this story is going, don’t we? Isn’t it inevitable that a story set among teenagers in the ‘hood is going to be swallowed whole by the trinity of drugs, guns and gangs?
Not this time. Writer and director Peter Sollett tells a story that we haven’t seen before. His film – which was developed out of Sollett’s “Five Feet High and Rising,” winner of the Best Student Short at Aspen Shortsfest 2000 – focuses on romance in the projects.
Which is not to say that “Raising Victor Vargas” is a romantic film. Far from it. Sollett, a product of the working-class neighborhood of Bensonhurst in Brooklyn, doesn’t strip away any of the difficulties of ghetto life in taking drugs, guns and gangs out of the equation. In fact, the point seems to be that the projects are a rough place to grow up in every facet of life.
Like the legion of drugs-guns-and-gangs movies, “Raising Victor Vargas” pinpoints the lack of role models as the principal failure of the ‘hood. Victor – portrayed by nonprofessional actor Victor Rasuk – lives in a crowded apartment with his two younger siblings, a brother and a half sister, and their grandmother. His mother and father are mentioned only once, briefly; the casual mention illuminates how routine it is in the projects to grow up without parents.
It is left to Victorto play the man of the house, a role he is thoroughly unequipped to handle. Sollett uses the sphere of boy-girl romance to show how unprepared Victor is to act the adult, and it turns out to be a choice that infuses “Raising Victor Vargas” with complexity and freshness.
In an opening scene that practically announces that “Raising Victor Vargas” isn’t going to fall into the usual ghetto cliches, Victor is in bed with a girl known around the projects as “fat Donna.” Petrified that his encounter with an unattractive girl will lower his street cred, Victor decides to bolster his credibility by putting the moves on “Juicy Judy” (Judy Marte), the hottie of the ‘hood. Hesitantly, with varying amounts of sweetness, cruelty, bumbling, posturing and honesty, the two stumble into a relationship.
Apart from his entanglement with Judy, Victor has situations at home that also force him toward adulthood. His brother, Nino, is starting to ask Victor for advice on life, love and masturbation. Victor, of course, has no good advice to give, but where else is Nino going to turn? Victor’s lazy sister, Vicki, is a constant thorn in his side; Victor’s efforts to help her romantically result in comical disaster.
Victor’s main foil at home is his cranky, Old World grandmother (Altagracia Guzman), a Dominican immigrant with no hope of understanding the life of a teenager in the projects. As the oldest grandchild in the house, Victor shoulders the burdens, fairly or not, of being the role model. His shortcomings constantly earn the moody, silent stares of grandma.
The family dramas add much to rounding out this remarkably well-observed film. But the heart of the movie remains the relationship between Victor and Judy, one of the most tender and real teenage romances depicted on film. In tiny steps, both Victor and Judy are stripped of the lies and facades they put up between themselves. Sollett has shot almost the entire film in close-up, getting the maximum impact out of those deceptions and postures. When they are finally wiped clean, the kiss and embrace at the film’s end is enormously rewarding.
“Raising Victor Vargas” will be screened on Wednesday, April 2, at 9 p.m. at the Wheeler Opera House, as part of Aspen Shortsfest’s Director Spotlight program. Writer-director Peter Sollett is scheduled to introduce the film and participate in a question-and-answer session.
Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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With COVID-19 health and safety practices in place, who is up for a road trip to see the Denver Art Museum’s hotly anticipated exhibition on Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera?