Most movies about young people—even those made by young people—are slick and unobservant. They pander to the public’s perception of what teenagers are supposed to look and sound like, and even though most of us recognize the falsity in what we see, we tend to buy into it anyway as a reassuring pop myth.
One of the few recent movies to show teens in ways that hit home emotionally was Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También, and now there’s another one, more modest, to be sure, but remarkably winning and nuanced just the same. Raising Victor Vargas, the first feature from 27-year-old writer-director Peter Sollett, is a comedy in the best sense—it draws its life from the pitch-perfect authenticity of its characters.
Sollett based his movie on his award-winning short film, Five Feet High and Rising, which he made as an NYU student, and he employs largely the same extraordinary semi- and nonprofessional cast. Victor (Victor Rasuk) lives with his younger siblings, brother Nino (Silvestre Rasuk) and sister Vicki (Krystal Rodriguez), and their grandmother (Altagracia Guzman) in a tiny apartment on the Lower East Side. (That neighborhood, by the way, has never been more delicately depicted in a movie; we’re looking at a village, not a backdrop.) Right away, the familial tone that Sollett sets up seems just right: Victor, who spends most of the summertime shirtless, struts around the cramped quarters like a bantamweight champ, dissing his overweight sister (who disses him back) while playing the role of stud sage to Nino.
Grandma, who came over years before from the Dominican Republic, is the family’s sole parental authority. She’s furiously suspicious of Victor’s ways, and sees him as the latest in a line of gigolos stretching back to her late husband, whose portrait, handsome and severe, hangs in the living room. (Victor loves to point out that he bears a resemblance to his grandfather.) Grandma has a wonderful monologue about growing up on a farm in a family of fourteen children, which humanizes her just when we’re tempted to dismiss her as a battle-ax. She’s an old-school matriarch with a soft spot for well-behaved children. When we see her shampoo Nino’s full head of curls, there’s an almost ritualistic enjoyment in the act, and when Nino practices the piano, pecking out some Bach, she swoons with pride. Nino is prideful, too, in a teacher’s-pet sort of way. When Grandma says that “he always tries to make the family happy,” Sollett gives us a close-up of the smiling boy that is close to beatific.
But Nino is also curious about masturbation, and when Grandma catches him in the act, she blames it all on Victor’s bad influence. The most hilarious, and touching, scene in the movie comes when Grandma drags the brood into a family-services clinic and asks the caseworker if she can put Victor out into the street. Victor spends most of the movie speaking in a kind of ghetto jive, but here he implores Grandma in Spanish—so you know he’s serious—to ease up. Together, the family makes amends by going to church and lighting candles, and there is a bewildered awe in their faces as the flames flicker before them. For this moment at least, Grandma knows best.
Victor’s street cred has been damaged because of a liaison with a roly-poly local girl—Fat Donna—so he makes it his business to court the prized “Juicy” Judy (Judy Marte). Her first response on seeing him preen before her at the local pool is to shut him down by falsely telling him she already has a boyfriend. Even after they tentatively become a couple, she puts up a formidable front. “You’re so easy to see through, it’s embarrassing,” she tells him, and of course she’s right. But his transparency is also what attracts her; the moment she warms to him is when he confesses he’s nervous around her.
Despite her hard, almost masklike features, Judy is transparent, too. She and her best friend, Melonie (Melonie Diaz), have made a pact to steer clear of boys, but it’s the kind of pact that’s made to be broken. Melonie breaks it with Harold (Kevin Rivera), a good-naturedly pushy friend of Victor’s who flatters her by saying she looks like Julia Roberts. (She sort of does, in a mousy way). Judy is a special case: She has hardly ever been with boys, as it turns out, and yet she has the been-around look of someone whose been swatting them away for years. She can’t walk down the street without being harassed by neighborhood guys spewing obscenities, and so Victor, with his innocence and his delight in being her “man,” is practically a prince by comparison.
Most teen performers have been molded by bad acting habits derived from TV shows and Hollywood teen flicks, but everyone here has a rare freshness. They seem to be performing without reference to anything that came before—as if they had never seen a movie. This is equally true of Altagracia Guzman, a former seamstress and dress designer who never acted before. Sollett rehearsed the cast for a month prior to filming and allowed them to improvise freely. Along with his cinematographer, Tim Orr, and his editor, Myron Kerstein, Sollett knows exactly how to present these people so that we catch each burst of elation and twinge of regret from precisely the right angle. Raising Victor Vargas is filled with marvelous faces, and their expressiveness deepens the drama. When Victor rags his sister, for example, or gets the brush-off from Judy, there is nothing cute in the moment; we can see in their eyes how sharp the hurt is.
The film ends in both sweetness and ambiguity. Grandma comes to realize this is the only family she has—to cast out Victor would be to diminish herself. Victor and Judy have a final scene in which all pretense has drained from their features and they look at each other with a newness that is almost idyllic. In a last shot of them together, as they return to their families, they seem stricken by the depths of emotion they’ve stirred up in each other. Love is no longer a frolic.