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Raising Victor Vargas (Peter Sollett) 2002


    Peter Sollett’s surprisingly assured debut feature Raising Victor Vargas is a movie that makes you feel so good while you’re watching that you’ll be more than willing to forgive any notion that its small-scale tale of familial strain and idle languor is somehow slight. Set in New York City’s Lower East Side during a few hot summer afternoons, it wonderfully captures both the innocent side of teenage puppy love and the posturing that always threatens to end that innocence. Victor (Victor Rasuk), the macho, but goodhearted teen that the film centers around is the man of his house, even though he’s only seventeen years old. With his grandmother, his brother, and his sister, his modern family has to balance its nontraditional needs with the grandmother’s desire to retain traditional values. With a cast of unknowns, Peter Sollett creates a cast of characters whose lives seem to extend well beyond the edges of the screen. His grandmother’s irascible and feisty demeanor only escalates once the hormones start to flow in the home’s younger inhabitants. Since the film is not so much a coming of age story as a snapshot of their lives, the tone is far more often comic than dramatic (and never tragic), and the characters are much more endearing as a result.


    The tightly edited Raising Victor Vargas has next to no dead space. Its central character’s evolution as a ladykiller prompts a series of hilarious scenes that flaunt the director’s winning ear for dialogue and excellent ability to cull great performances from untrained performers. Nothing feels scripted when Victor’s exasperated and irritated sister exclaims, “You’re so stupid! How can you live with yourself!?” and when we see that Victor still has his grandmother wash his hair, he’s revealed as the harmless guy that we hoped he would turn out to be while watching him walk his walk earlier. As the movie progresses, it sometimes momentarily threatens to get more serious, but it doesn’t, much to its credit, despite a detour to family court. The film accepts and embraces its small scope, and never for a moment exploits its characters. The only minor problem I had with the movie is that the ending seems a bit too schematic in its near-simultaneous resolution of several narrative threads at once, but that might have as much to do with the unforced feel of what’s come before as the toll of the plotting. Even if it’s not quite the great film that David Gordon Green’s George Washington (which the great cinematographer Tim Orr also shot) was, Raising Victor Vargas deserves consideration alongside the best of all teen movies. Its sensitive, warmly funny hysterics perfectly portray the inevitable emotional tugging and pulling that comes with the territory when you’re a teenager.

* * * *


Jeremy Heilman