“Raising Victor Vargas” is one of the most deliciously authentic films I’ve ever seen. It’s set in the Lower East Side of Manhattan during a hot summer, and you can practical smell, taste and feel it: The kids are out of school, the families live in small apartments in huge buildings, the streets are crowded. The film was shot in real locations, and real people fill the scenes.
Peter Sollett, the writer and director, based this on his 1999 short film “Five Feet High and Rising,” which in turn was loosely based on his own upbringing — except that Sollett was raised in a Jewish/Italian neighborhood of Brooklyn, not an Hispanic section of Manhattan. The Sundance Screenwriters Lab helped him assemble the script, and he allowed his actors — most of whom hail from the very neighborhoods he’s writing about — to improvise and grow into their roles.
The result is an utterly charming slice-of-life picture that is as joyful and real as anything you’ll see any time soon. It is full of natural humor, the stuff of everyday life, without a single set-up or punch line.
The subject is young love. Teenager Victor Vargas (Victor Rasuk) claims to be an expert in it, though like many hot-blooded young Latin men, he is more talk than action. He embarrassed at the film’s beginning to have been discovered fooling around with a girl called Fat Donna (Donna Maldonado), for surely a stud such as he could do better.
Soon enough he has done better, semi-successfully wooing neighborhood hottie Judy Ramirez (Judy Marte), whose chubby little brother Carlos (Wilfree Vasquez) has a crush on Victor’s self-assured younger sister Vicky (Krystal Rodriguez). Victor agrees to set Carlos up with Vicky in exchange for Carlos arranging a meeting with Judy. As you can see, love is a complicated thing in the barrio.
Victor, Vicky and the brother between them, Nino (Silvestre Rasuk), live with their ancient Dominican grandmother (Altagracia Guzman), a fiery, no-nonsense woman who believes Victor’s romantic shenanigans make him a bad kid. In truth, as hormonal as Victor is, he’s at least sincere. What he goes through — indeed, what all the characters go through — is instantly identifiable.
I love the details of this film. They are perfect. The dress Judy wears when she comes to Victor’s apartment for dinner is exactly what a girl of her background in that neighborhood at that time would wear, and Victor’s behavior around her could have been taken from surveillance footage of any teenage boy.
The performances, too, hardly seem like performances, and I suspect some of them are not. Most of the cast has not appeared in movies before; Altagracia Guzman, as far as I can tell, is just playing herself, not some fictional grandmother someone made up for her. She’s wonderfully feisty and believable, and so is the movie.
A (1 hr., 28 min.; )