The agony of first love can be hard. When you’re in a community that places inordinate amounts of pressure on males to be pepped up and full of machismo, it can be even tougher. Particularly when today’s enlightened women aren’t necessarily gonna stand for that old school vibe.
Victor Vargas is a 19 year old player. Blessed with good looks he manoeuvres his way into the affections of ‘Fat Donna’ and when caught, and fearing losing his street cred, he makes a deal with Carlos to get next to his untouchable sister ‘Juicy’ Judy. Only thing is, Carlos likes Victor’s sister Vicki, so Victor has to make an arrangement there as well.
|"Tell me where you sister’s at or you don’t meet Godzilla!"|
Soon, Victor has established contact with Judy and his cred is restored, but where he thinks he’s doing pretty well with her, he ain’t. Because she’s a total hottie, she’s just stringing him along so all the local fellas will leave her alone. However, young love is a strange and terrifying thing and in juggling his family life (with his younger brother Nino who has discovered masturbation, his sister Vicki and his possessive grandmother) Victor starts to realise there’s more to being a man than just scoring with chicks.
Director Peter Sollett has crafted what is essentially a follow up to his 1999 short Five Feet High and Rising. This earlier work also featured Victor Rasuk and Judy Marte in the leads and tells the story of how Victor snared his first kiss. Raising Victor Vargas is more a retelling, in essence, with a few years tacked on and a wider supporting cast of characters. Both films manage to capture that horrible yet extraordinarily beautiful time in life when the body is uncontrollable and emotions are in turmoil. In ageing so rapidly our body and spirit yearn to escape, but societal boundaries tie us down and the angst and pent-up confusion, as well as coming to terms with physical sensation, is almost all-consuming. I wouldn’t go back if you paid me.
However, there are some moments in these years that become the yardstick for the rest of our lives and here Sollett has imbued his story with familiar character portraits and experience common to all in one way or another. Performances are incredible from this young and practically inexperienced cast and the story plays out in a fresh and soulful manner. Although set in New York’s Lower East Side, there is something heartwarmingly and heart-achingly recognisable here regardless of where you are from.
It’s the most out of control period of our lives, generally speaking, and it’s a wonder any of us get through it, but Sollett has captured the feeling and the essence of those most chaotic years and painted a portrait of both awkwardness and humour and of warmth and hope.
Shot on what looks like Mini DV, there are few moments here of disappointment. There are occasional film artefacts, but the picture quality is sharp and clear. Colour is good, although some flesh tones bleed and are oversaturated, given a yellow blotching at times. This may or may not be a flare burn, but there are a few examples early in the film and a good long example from 1:11:46-56. Shadow detail isn’t really apparent as the majority of the film is in daylight, but the interior darks of apartments are pretty clear without grain and blacks are solid, but true. The whole film is delivered in the screen aspect ratio of 1.85:1 with anamorphic 16:9 enhancement and generally looks okay and more personal with the handheld cameras. This works for a film of such an intimate nature as this and is much more of a plus than a minus.
Being a mostly downplayed talkie with no real musical backing, there isn’t much for a surround sound setup to do in this Dolby Digital stereo affair. The lack of a subwoofer track means little, as this is a pensive and dialogue-driven piece not needing such support. There are sporadic moments of film score here and, while rarely apparent, they do lend a good backdrop for the communication of the actors.
Raising Victor Vargas will feel familiar to anyone who suffered the awkwardness of their teenage years and the difficulty of first love (so, basically anyone). It’s a nice reminder of a time I personally have no regrets in leaving in my rear view mirror, and two natural young stars brilliantly portray the story on film. The personal space of the small and poor apartments has also been well captured, with the smaller handheld cameras giving the film a very intimate dimension that works exceptionally well for the storyline.
This is another in a string of films from new blood, bringing new ideas and equipment and storytelling technique into the forefront of today’s film industry and excelling with it. Well worth checking out.