Raising Victor Vargas Movie Review
The title character (Victor Rasuk) is an 18-year-old Lower East Side playa-wannabe: The film's opening finds him undressing for a neighborhood girl, derisively called "Fat Donna." Though that encounter is interrupted, Victor and his friend are soon hitting on two girls at the local swimming pool, where Victor falls for Judy (Judy Marte), who ignores him. Rejection isn't about to slow him down, though. Victor recruits Judy's younger brother (Wilfree Vasquez) to reintroduce them, and thus the two kids begin an awkward process of letting their guards down.
When he focuses on the uneasy courtship, Sollett, in his full-length debut after directing award-winning short film Five Feet High and Rising, shows talent. The camerawork is limited to medium shots tightly framed, so we get an idea of just how uncomfortable Judy and Victor feel. Sollett also scores in tracking the relationship, the couple doesn't just magically belong together. They have to shed layers of insecurity and bravado. In their performances, Rasuk and Marte demonstrate patience and restraint. A shrug of the shoulders and a shy smile reveal so much.
Marte, who looks like a pre-glam Jennifer Lopez, is a discovery. Her street-tough façade melts before our eyes. She starts off hating men, who boast of sexual acts and grab at her greedily. In the end, when she visits Victor's apartment wearing a slinky dress, Marte's character provides a softening, graceful presence to a lifestyle that badly needs adornment.
The interaction of the two leads carries the movie, but when the Sollet brings his attention elsewhere, Raising Victor Vargas falters. Victor and his two siblings live with their grandmother (Altagracia Guzman, in her film debut), who is determined to keep the last shreds of a splintered family together. Her desire leads to a lot of culture clash arguments that don't really add any emotional depth to Victor's story, especially when the details are so suggestive. He and his kid brother, Nino (Silvestre Rasuk), share a bed and Nino appears to wear the same heart-patterned boxer shorts every day. The apartment features a rotary phone and worn-out furniture. Grandma washes Nino's hair with a halved-off coffee can. With all of this evidence, a screaming match and a visit to juvenile court seem terribly redundant, not to mention an ideal way to stall momentum.
Conversely, we don't see much of Judy's family (she lives with her single mom and younger brother), which would have shed a little more light on how she became so hardened, so young. It would have made Marte's performance that much more endearing. And I would have liked more attention paid to Judy's intelligent, sympathetic friend, Melonie (Melonie Diaz), who doesn't so much fall for Victor's friend (Kevin Rivera) as submit to his advances. A glimpse into how she let herself go could have made for a more complete look at how real people fall in love.
Then again, young love works in strange ways. Despite some questionable plot decisions, Sollet shows how awkward, crazy, and redeeming being in love can be. Raising Victor Vargas could have been filmed anywhere; its scenes are being played out in every mall, college campus and watering hole in the world right now.