Raising Victor Vargas (2002)

When I first saw this movie sitting in a bin of ultra cheap DVDs, the title rang some kind of bell. I’m still not exactly sure what that bell was, because I have no idea even why I would have heard of this movie.

Peter Sollett–a native Brooklynite–writes and directs the story of Victor Vargas (Victor Rasuk), a Dominican kid on the Lower East Side who tries to live life as he knows how to live it. His grandmother (Altagracia Guzman) is deeply religious and a first generation immigrant to the United States and does not understand Victor’s behaviour at all, especially when contrasted with her granddaughter Vicki de la Cruz (Krystal Rodriguez) who spends her time sitting on the couch watching television and her other grandson Nino (Victor’s actual brother Silvestre) who does his best to please his grandmother, playing piano and going to Mass. Victor, though, is more interested in girls, first seen preparing to have sex with “Fat Donna” (Donna Maldonado) until his friend Harold (Kevin Rivera) calls him out on it–nearly destroying Victor’s (largely made up, I suspect) reputation as a “ladies’ man.” The two go to a pool and from there both take parallel but varying paths into attracting two girls–“Juicy” Judy Gonzalez (Judy Marte) and Melonie (Melonie Diaz). Victor attempts the macho swagger he thinks attracts women with Judy while Harold tries a fumbling even worse representation of the same approach with Melonie. Both girls are very wary of boys in general, but especially of these two.

There’s a lot of back and forth nattering on IMDb as to the “reality” or “truth” of the movie, and I can’t say that I’m Dominican or from the Lower East Side, but certainly the way that all of these–mostly unknown at the time–actors put together their characters (allegedly composed on a major scale from improvisation, being denied access to Sollett’s script) was very real to me. I have heard the speech patterns before without a doubt, and the swagger held just the right element of falsity and hidden insecurity in Victor, who eventually reveals himself as more scared and lonely than he first appears. The condescending and defensive behaviour by Melonie when confronted with Harold’s advances–usually leading to a reluctant acquiescence, one that tends to look as lacking in reluctance as it probably should be considering the way she reacts to him–is fantastically real. To see these behaviours approached in this fashion is refreshingly honest, with no explanation given, except in behaviour that correlates to real behaviour, for the incongruity in reaction and intention from these characters.

Altagracia’s performance is one of the most exciting (if that’s even the right word, which I can’t say I’m sure about) in that she manages to portray a woman who finds the behaviour of her own grandchildren alarmingly alien, eventually completely lost as to how they have become this way and why they are so “bad” and “uncontrollable.” She is not bad, she is just ignorant–which I mean only in the literal sense–and simply cannot translate the world that she lives in now from the one she remembers, where all three were young babies for her to take care of.

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