Raising Victor Vargas Review
Most films are so intent on bludgeoning us into submission that when we see a movie with a bit of subtlety and nuance it’s easy to mistake it for a classic. Consequently, well made but inconsequential little things like Lost In Translation are hailed as masterpieces simply because they are such a breath of fresh air after the idiocies of so many ‘big’ movies which have let us down so badly. Something similar often happens with small, independent movies where freshness and vitality are hyped out of all proportion, virtually guaranteeing that viewers will be left with a certain sense of disappointment. Raising Victor Vargas is a case in point. It’s a lovely miniature, with note-perfect sense of place and witty characterisation, full of love, truth and optimism. But when it was over, I couldn’t help feeling a little bit hungry for a movie.
The opening scene of Peter Sollett’s feature debut seems to fulfill all our worst expectations about teen movies. The 16 year old hero, Victor (Rasuk ) lifts his t-shirt, licks his lips, flexes his pecs and begins somewhat clumsy foreplay with the girl upstairs, Fat Donna (Donna Maldonado). He seems to radiate confidence, arrogance and the assumption that sex is something to which he has a natural right. Then, suddenly, he’s interrupted by a call from his friend Harold (Rivera) and a rather different and far superior film begins to unspool. Victor, desperate to avoid being labelled “Fat Donna’s Boy” begins a campaign to try and seduce Judy (Marte), a beautiful girl he meets at the swimming pool. But unsuspected obstacles are thrown into his path and it soon becomes obvious that Judy isn’t working from the same script. Worse still, his second generation immigrant grandma (Guzman) has put a padlock on the phone and believes him to be such a bad influence on his brother and sister that she tries to get him taken into care. What immediately captures the attention is the dialogue. Teen movies tend to trade in vulgarity and innuendo to such an extent that it’s hugely refreshing to hear characters talk in a way which has some relation to real life. Everything Judy says in her first meeting with Victor is funny and there’s a lovely moment when she takes him to look at his reflection and says, “Does that look like god’s gift to women ?” Victor may strut around like a combination of Eddie Murphy and David Dickinson but his youthful attempts at sounding worldly wise rarely rise above “This is it, this is where all the Victor love happens!” Judy raises an eyebrow and demolishes the facade with “What Victor love ?” When Judy and her friend.... talk together, they display an intimacy which seems the product of years of friendship and Victor’s conversations with his annoying little sister similarly seem to emerge out of a weary familial relationship. Even Grandma – the one character who seems much too familiar – has appropriate verbal tics, not least the way in which she continually refers to herself in the third person.
This is maybe the key to why the film is so rewarding. Everyone in it seems to have stepped straight off the streets of a humidity-drenched New York. All the films involving teenagers that I’ve watched recently - Party Monster, Manic, Thirteen - have been about the horrible, angst-ridden, drug-addled messes that young people can make of their lives. Raising Victor Vargas avoids this cliche by featuring teenagers whose lives are actually recognisable. Sure, Victor and his friends are interested in sex, some of them even have sex. They might even smoke the occasional joint. But basically, they lead normal, uneventful existencies in which the problems are on a small scale. Although this doesn’t make for great drama, it’s a refreshing change. Judy is a particularly inspired character. Teenage girls tend to get a raw deal on film, being either off-the-rails monsters or mini pop-divas, but Judy is different. She’s intelligent, eloquent and dismissive of the men who simply want to get into her trousers. Not only does she have to cope with Victor and his peers pressing their attentions onto her, she has to deal with the braindead lads from upstairs whose idea of witty repartee is “Do you wanna get fucked in your doody hole ?” (one of them claims to be a ‘producer’ and has a friend known as ‘Double Penetration). Her attitude to the opposite sex is cynical and guarded but immensely curious at the same time. Her friend, Melonie (Diaz), is equally believable and her change of heart when she decides to sleep with the persistent but likeable Harold is handled with immense tact. Even the cliched “take your glasses off and let your hair down” scene between the pair has a humourous spin to it.
But the piquancy of the film lies in the central character of Victor Vargas. As I’ve said, at the beginning you think that this is going to be a predictable story about an over-sexed teenage male but what makes the film so unusual is that it’s essentially about how the mask of confidence begins to fall off. Victor, so desperate to impress his friends and so adamant on retaining his, largely illusory, reputation as a stud, comes up against the limitations of his image when he falls for Judy, a girl who refuses to respond to his perception of himself. Victor, the would-be player, hip to every eventuality, turns out to be just as confused, clumsy and conflicted as most of us were at that age. The film, which we thought would be about his easy conquests, turns into something much deeper and, unexpectedly, considerably more moving. It’s only when he faces up to the lie of his image and the limitations of being a ‘player’ that he is able to turn the relationship around. It’s refreshing to see a film which tells the truth about teenagers and sex – i.e. that for every teenager doing it, there are at least five who are sitting on their own wondering why they aren’t.
From this evidence – and the short film Five Feet High And Rising which is included on the DVD - Peter Sollett isn’t a particularly strong narrative director. The film tends to amble and even at a tight 80 minutes it seems a little bit unfocused. In some respects, this is the inevitable result of the story he’s telling, which is small in scale and far more about character than incident. But from the way he lets shots linger a little too long and the frequent impression that scenes could have been curtailed before they are, I suspect that he is too much in love with the characters and atmosphere to worry about plot. However, this isn’t an uncommon attribute of first time directors and some filmmakers never develop beyond this – on the basis of The Virgin Suicides and Lost In Translation Sofia Coppola seems a good example. It’s also fair to say that most films are so plot-heavy in a bad way – loaded with artificial and unrealistic incident at the expense of characterisation – that this style is far from being a fatal flaw. What he is resoundingly good at, however, is directing his young actors and evoking the steam-heat of New York at the height of summer. At times, I was reminded of Spike Lee’s definitive midsummer NYC movie Do The Right Thing. The cinematography by Tim Orr is gorgeous. Some people may tire of the abundance of orange and gold but it gives a visual elegance and sheen to the film which is beautifully elegaic and perfectly matches the slow pace of the film. The final images, where mood, pace and visuals combine to perfection, are simply gorgeous and linger in the mind long after the credits have rolled.
So why did I feel just a little bit unsatisfied at the end of this movie ? I think it might be the overwhelming aura of niceness which the film possesses. Life is full of messiness, rough edges and compromises. The film goes some way towards acknowledging this but then seems to stop and accept a more conventional resolution. One doesn't necessarily want every Latino film to be an epic about street-level sleaze and violence but nor does one want to see a Latino version of The Partridge Family. Sollett's film is very effective as far as it goes but it doesn't quite go far enough and it leaves you thinking "Is that it ?" Then again, it's a first feature and maybe Sollett will be more ambitious next time and delve a little deeper. I await his next project with much interest.
The region 2 release of Raising Victor Vargas is very pleasant without being particularly impressive. Like many Momentum releases of recent world cinema hits, it has a good transfer but lacks many extra features. This time, however, one of the extras is really substantial.
The film is transferred in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and has been anamorphically enhanced. This is a very nice visual experience which does full justice to the excellent cinematography. Most importantly, the colours are wonderfully rich and full and the interior scenes in the various apartments are suitably dark without being muddy. There is plenty of fine detail present and the slight texturing throughout is characteristic of the low-budget original. No damage is present and there are no serious problems with artifacting.
The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, reflecting the theatrical presentation. It’s a clean, clear track which does a good job of transferring the dialogue and the sparse but effective music score.
The main extra feature is Sollett’s first film, a half-hour short film called Five Feet High And Rising. This also features Rasuk and Marte and functions as a kind of prequel to Raising Victor Vargas. It’s funny and touching and is, in some ways, less indulgent than the main feature.
We also get the theatrical trailer and a weblink. English subtitles are provided for the main feature which is very useful for deciphering the occasionally impenetrable accents.
Raising Victor Vargas is a nice, small film which has distinct limitations but still manages to be funny, charming and poignant. If you can avoid being caught up in the hype then you should enjoy it a great deal. This DVD presents the film very nicely and the inclusion of Sollett’s first movie is a definite bonus.