Set in the last un-gentrified stretch of New York's East Village, "Raising Victor Vargas" unfolds during one of those summers when heat waves shimmer above the asphalt and bodies glisten with sweat. A story about teenage love in first bloom, it was written and directed by Peter Sollett, a 26-year-old who, between a childhood in Brooklyn and film school in Manhattan, developed a tangible fondness for the French New Wave. Like many a Frenchman before him, this Brooklyn kid has lyrical feel for what it is to be young and heartbreakingly hormonal.
The movie opens with Sollett's 17-year-old hero (Victor Rasuk) staring into the camera and licking his lips. A self-styled player and bright star of his own drama, Victor has landed in the bedroom of a woman colloquially known around the neighborhood as "Fat Donna." Cooing incessantly ("you still want this love, right?"), Victor sounds absurd and looks even more foolish as he makes his move -- his reedy, down-covered limbs don't look up to the task of such a formidable prize. When he spots a Polaroid of him on Donna's night table, though, he abruptly puts his endearments on pause. And then, just in the very moment he realizes that news of the boudoir interlude may somehow leak to the outside world, it does.
Spurred by shame, Victor exits Donna's bed and spends much of the rest of the film trying to land a girl he believes is worthy of his self-image. While cooling down at a public pool, he sets his sights on a sloe-eyed beauty nicknamed "Juicy" Judy (Judy Marte). Judy looks more physically mature than Victor and has learned to put a defensive swagger into her walk but, as befitting a film in which perception rarely matches fact, her looks are deceiving. She's not sure if she's ready for Victor and from all his fumbling it seems that he may not actually be ready, either. They begin a slow-dance of courtship -- he advances, she retreats, then he does too -- that's sweetly serious. Like Sollett's screenplay, the lovers move to their own unhurried, earnest rhythms.
Reminiscent of such quasi-documentary classics as Shirley Clarke's "The Cool World," Sollett's debut is impressive by any standard. The film is based on a 29-minute short that he made while an undergraduate at New York University called "Five Feet and Rising" and which stars some of the same nonprofessional actors seen here. For the short film, Sollett transposed the autobiographical screenplay from his white Brooklyn neighborhood to the East Village after failing to find teenagers who didn't bring a media-tutored self-consciousness to their auditions. It was only after culling untrained Latino actors from his newly adopted East Village home that he found the kind of kids who, as he put it in one interview, could fit with his ambition to make "a work of realism."
I'm not really sure what he means by realism since no East Village summer ever looked that lovely and sounded that quiet, and I've met loads of white Brooklyn kids who are plenty real. The nonprofessionals and gritty backdrop point "Raising Victor Vargas" in the direction of documentary even as everything else -- the deracinated streets, the honeyed light -- point it toward fantasy. (The artfulness of "Raising Victor Vargas" is the most real thing about it.) Sollett has created a Potemkin East Village but he isn't alone in his yearning for the authentic and his penchant for poeticism. Like David Gordon Green ("All the Real Girls"), Sollett belongs to a wave of artists and writers, who united by a desire to break free of postmodernism's reflexive irony, are in the grip of sincerity.
Soon after Victor persuades Judy to go out with him, he takes her to a lot that seems like one of his regular haunts. Shooing away a pecking chicken, he takes a chick from a nest in an old filing cabinet and gently hands the girl the ball of fluff. The anxiety clouding Victor's face works a poetic counterpoint to Judy's nervousness. He wants desperately to impress her and she's not sure if she likes all these chickens, much less what to make of Victor. Their awkwardness tugs at you, as does the idyll. Amid the rubble, the two have found a crumb of paradise, which is no small thing when you're poor and living in New York.
Still, while I was watching the scene, I admit my attention kept straying from the young lovers over to the dozens of bicycles cluttering up the pastoral backdrop. Try as I might, I couldn't stop thinking about my bikes that were stolen while I lived in that same neighborhood. That memory imbued the scene with unexpected, and uninvited, comedy, but it also underscored that, however seductive, the veil that Sollett had thrown over the story is completely romantic. The image of that corner of the East Village as an antediluvian refuge, in which the natives pose against translucent emerald trees (rather than derelict tenements), invokes the primitivism of a Henri Rousseau hallucination, as well as its fictions.
The veil has its protective uses. In most movies, even the more nominally independent, characters such as Victor from neighborhoods like this one are usually brandishing a gun or delivering a nickel bag but rarely get to experience the epiphanies of first love. Given this, you understand why Sollett would want to dodge some of the area's grittier truths. The film is not just about Victor and Judy but about Victor and his tight-knit family, whose love for each other protects them from the catastrophes that can overwhelm the poor. Poverty has forced Victor and his younger brother Nino (Silvestre Rasuk) to sleep in the same bed and crowded all three Vargas children into the same bedroom, but it hasn't turned them into social problems. They're broke but they're also still kids.
When "Raising Victor Vargas" premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last year, it was called, more prosaically, "Long Way Home." The new title is more resonant but it also suggests that the film's subject isn't only this would-be Lothario but what it takes to bring up a young man as good and decent as Victor. That simple acknowledgment -- that goodness can be found everywhere, even among the marginalized -- goes a long way toward mitigating Sollett's perilously naïve claim that it's easier to find realism (or truth) among kids of Dominican descent than among kids of Irish and Italian heritage. His film may be something of a beautiful lie, but what's true about Sollett's characters is that their dreams, their grace and their struggles are as real as it gets.
'Raising Victor Vargas'
MPAA rating: R, for strong language
Times guidelines: The usual teenage wanton profanity
Victor Rasuk ... Victor Vargas
Judy Marte ... Judy
Melonie Diaz ... Melonie
Altagracia Guzman ... Grandma
Silvestre Rasuk ... Nino
Samuel Goldwyn Films and Fireworks Films present a Studiocanal production in association with Forensic Films, released by Samuel Goldwyn Films and Fireworks Pictures. Writer-director Peter Sollett. Producers Peter Sollett, Alain de la Mata, Robin O'Hara, Scott Macaulay. Story by Peter Sollett, Eva Vives. Director of photography Tim Orr. Production designer Judy Becker. Editor Myron Kerstein. Costume designer Jill Newell. Music Roy Nathanson, Bill Ware. Music consultant Tracy McKnight. Sound designer Steve Borne. Casting Ulysses Torrero. Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes.
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