“Raising Victor Vargas” opens with the title character posing for the camera — he looks directly at us, he flexes his muscles and he licks his lips. It is a combination of affected gestures familiar to everyone who has ever been an awkward adolescent, trying to put on the face he or she thinks the world wants to see. But as Victor Vargas learns, and the film reaffirms with its frank narrative, the most beautiful and compelling images in life are those that are devoid of artifice.
In his first feature film, writer-director Peter Sollett has expanded upon his award-winning 2000 short film (“Five Feet High and Rising”), using the same actors in this elegant and sincere comedy. The story is one that we’ve heard before — a coming-of-age narrative centered on Victor and his two siblings, Vicky and Nino, who live in a tiny apartment on New York’s Lower East Side with their conservative Grandma, a Dominican immigrant.
When the whole neighborhood laughs at Victor (Victor Rasuk) for being caught in a tryst with “Fat Donna,” he determines to redeem his reputation by setting his sights on “Juicy” Judy (Judy Marte), the most sought after girl sun-bathing at the local public pool. His efforts are complicated by his overbearing Grandma who blames Victor for what she sees as her other two grandchildren’s rebellion. She believes Victor is the catalyst for the sexual awakenings of Vicky and Nino, when in reality he is merely an observer and a guide for his siblings as all three experience the natural and inevitable process of growing up. The entire plot unfolds during a hot urban summer we might recognize from films like “Do the Right Thing,” where you can see the sweat glistening on the actors’ skin as conflict rises along with the temperature.
The film displays a skillful combination of both subtlety and honesty in dealing with teenage sexuality. For example, rather than the usual tedious dialogue about Judy’s inexperience and conservative Catholic background, Sollett artfully shows us all we need to know with the cross around her neck and the anxious way she moves when she is around Victor and other young men. Another especially poignant scene shows Victor’s friend Harold and his love interest Melonie. They count to three and take off their glasses at the same time, flirting innocently while foreshadowing their sexual initiation.
Sollett’s camera is constantly moving and slightly unsteady as it follows the actors and zooms in on their faces. The cinematography is devoted absolutely to the characters. The landscape of New York City, barely recognizable except for a rooftop shot including the Empire State building, takes a back seat role to make way for the film’s young actors. We know how deep an influence growing up in the city has been on these young people without the cliched shots of familiar New York locations.
The actors exude the city in every subtle inflection of their voices and facial expressions, perhaps better than more experienced actors could. Because all of them grew up in New York and several of them attended the same high school, they poses a natural chemistry and an honest way of delivering their lines. The dynamic between Victor and Nino, played by real-life brothers, and the relationship between Grandma (the hilarious Altagrazia Guzman) and the three children are sheer perfection.
What makes this simple comedy work in the end is its capacity to make the audience believe in the characters and the genuineness of their emotions. We understand why Judy is captivated when Victor tells her, “I want you to see me in my crazy beat down shorts, meet my crazy grandma, my bitchy sister, and my little brother — ’cause that’s me.” Sincerity in film and in love is the ultimate turn-on.