Raising Victor Vargas

I usually feel a strong affinity for films which are set in my home cities

Mona Lisa, say, or anything by Woody Allen. New York has way,

way more than its fair share of indy filmmakers, so a lot of low-budget films

end up being set here. The wonderful Sunshine

Cinema specialises in such films: it’s where I saw 13 Conversations

About One Thing, Roger Dodger, and Tadpole. Finally,

last night, I got around to seeing Raising

Victor Vargas there, as well.

Raising Victor Vargas is a world apart from the privileged life portrayed

in Igby Goes Down etc. It’s set in what all the film reviews insist

on calling the Lower East Side, although nearly all of it takes place north

of Houston Street. Still, the moniker is fair: what we’re seeing is Loisaida

Avenue, not Avenue C. (For those of you who don’t live here, they’re physically

the same, but conceptually very different: the former is old-school Hispanic;

the latter new-school yuppie.) The big divide in this (my) neck of the woods

these days is not Houston Street so much as it is disposable income: there are

many poor families living on welfare and clipping supermarket coupons, as well

as bars with $2,000 bottles

of champagne and a new

hotel which will charge up to $2,500 a night.

But there are no yuppies in Raising Victor Vargas, there is no class

war. Our eponymous hero lives in a cramped apartment in the projects, sharing

his bedroom with his sister and his bed with his brother, but there’s

no resentment in this film, no indication that he’s living on what is probably

the richest island in the world. Victor’s the kind of kid who rejoices at finding

a quarter on the street, but he would never claim

abject poverty the way that much better-off LES writers do.

The lack of drugs or guns or money issues in this film is entirely deliberate.

In an interview

with Peter Sollett, the director, Bill Chambers notes that "the milieu

is all but incidental (Sollett picked the film’s central location based on the

Latino community’s enthusiastic response to an open casting call)". It’s

a little bit weird to see a film which was entirely shot on location in Manhattan

but which has no real New York feeling to it: the camera generally stays low

to the ground, concentrating on the characters, who in turn never stray from

their own small neighborhood. Even I, who have lived here for over six years,

had difficulty pinpointing most of the locations. If it wasn’t for the occasional

rooftop shot with the Empire State Building in the background, most people would

never know the film was shot here at all.

Raising Victor Vargas, then, is not about Latino life on the Lower

East Side, any more than The Wizard of Oz is about life on a Kansas

farm. It’s a much more universal film, which will appeal to anybody who’s ever

lived through the years between 11 and 18. School’s out for the summer, and

the New York heat is prompting the kids to start taking their clothes off. These

aren’t the funnysexysmartcocky kids of Hollywood teen comedies, either. They’re

real in a way which makes you realise just how fake most US films are when dealing

with adolescents. The casual cruelties, the weight obsesssions, the nervous

fumblings towards wanted-and-feared sex: this film makes you remember just what

it was like when you were a kid.

Credit must go to Smollett, but not for his writing chops: rather, he simply

took kids off the street, pointed a camera at them, and trusted them so much

that they ended up giving him some amazing scenes. "Victor suggesting to

Nino that the way they get the attention of a girl is by licking their lips

in a sexy way or the argument over who broke the telephone – I mean, you

can’t write that stuff," he says in the interview. "You just sort

of have to let them go at each other and try to cut it." Using untrained

actors is a bold move, but trusting their acting abilities so much that you

just let them improvise the scenes – that takes real daring, and paid

off handsomely in this case.

What’s most heartening is that this film, like Bend

It Like Beckham, seems to be taking off. It’s already grossed more

than its budget, and has increased the number of screens it’s showing on –

along with its weekend gross – every week since its release at the end

of March. We’re entering the braindead summer zone now, with X2, Daddy

Day Care and their ilk, so Raising Victor Vargas should have a

chance of positioning itself as a good film for the over-25 set. It’s funny,

it’s touching, it’s immensely likeable, and it’s even American, to boot. It’s

obviously a budget film: the titles and sountrack leave quite a lot to be desired,

for instance. But Sollett managed to find the money to shoot on film, which

makes it look professional – unlike most films which are shot on DV.

All the same, it does seem that the good films these days are all very short

on ambition: Raising Victor Vargas, for instance, is a small-scale

family drama which, if anything, is proud of the fact that it has no larger

message. What I long to see is a smaller, intelligent film which aspires to

greatness: something along the lines of Breaking the Waves, say. It

seems to me that American independent filmmakers are a bit like British novelists,

unable to think big. Why let Hollywood and pretentious Europeans have a monopoly

on hubristic excess?

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