Movie Reviews

Movie Review: Raising Victor Vargas – Hot Time, Summer in the City?

Written by Eva Vives and Peter Sollett
Directed by Peter Sollett

Teenagers are both the same and somewhat different no matter where you go. Small towns have problems somewhat different than that of suburbia, but teenagers somehow manage to find the same common denominators to struggle with, no matter what the setting.

Raising Victor Vargas is the story of teens in the projects. It specifically focuses on one teen, Victor (portrayed by Victor Rasuk) who is caught in the usual teen angst of having a reputation that is actually more talk than action, having made himself a reputation as a bit of a ladies’ man. However, the only sex he is actually getting is with “Fat Donna” upstairs. She’s not the type of girl he would want to crow about having sex with under any circumstances, due to the teenage social order which puts her pretty near the bottom due to her size.

When word gets out due to his sister, Vicki (portrayed by Krystal Rodriguez) being a typical sister and wanting to bring embarrassment to her brother, Victor will do anything to save his “ladies man” reputation. He begins pursuing “Juicy Judy” (portrayed by Judy Marte) who allows him to tell his “little friends” they’re sleeping together even though they aren’t.

Judy is pretty but doesn’t enjoy it. She’s seen as a trophy by men and boys when she walks out of her building. No one wants to know her – they want to be with her because she’s a pretty girl to score with. Together they forge an unusual friendship and develop a cautious relationship. Both are getting something external from it at first – Victor gets the boost to his reputation while Judy can point to him as her boyfriend as a way of fending off other advances.

Victor lives with his sister as well as a younger brother, Nino (portrayed by Silvestre Rasuk) in their grandmother’s apartment. Grandma (portrayed by Altagracia Guzman) is doing the best she can with the three adolescents, but the generation gap is doubled here. Grandma was raised on a farm in the Dominican Republic and dealing with raising three adolescents on her own while living in the big city is difficult for her. She is terribly hard on Victor, blaming him for all of the family’s ills. If any of his siblings do wrong, somehow it is his fault. This culminates in her going to the police station in an attempt to have them take Victor out of the home.

How this wears on Victor’s psyche is never directly addressed. However, the signs are there in how he acts; as if he doesn’t care when things seem to be wounding him. He’s grown very good at putting up a great front for others. Victor Rasuk does a terrific job in the role, giving the character nuances in his expressions and mannerisms that convey briefly the hurt he’s feeling.

There are other stories going on outside of Victor and his family, and it shifts focus every now and again to Judy’s friend Melonie (portrayed by Melonie Diaz) deals with her own budding feelings toward the opposite sex that she’s denied for so long. Judy’s brother also has feelings toward Vicki and when Victor brings the two of them together, he promptly throws up in Grandma’s living room. It’s teen angst in much the same style as so many other teen flicks, such as Sixteen Candles and Clueless, except for one major difference. The setting.

In most other teen films, the kids seem to come from middle to upper-class families. They are portrayed as having the whole world in front of them. Even characters such as Molly Ringwald’s Andie Walsh in Pretty in Pink or Judd Nelson’s John Bender in The Breakfast Club seem to have something going for them, despite being from “the wrong side of the tracks” (Andie more so than John). The teenagers in Raising Victor Vargas seem to have no future to look forward to. There’s no talk of college, no talk of a real future. They live in abject poverty owning very little, and the one thing they have to give each other is their bodies. This is the one thing that will condemn them to the endless repetition of the cycle as another generation is conceived (no one talks about protection before sex).

That’s the one major difference between Raising Victor Vargas and other coming-of-age films. Most other films end on a positive note, leaving me with the impression that something positive would come out of what I just viewed. I don’t know that I felt that after viewing this film. While the characters were quite likable I just found myself wondering what else there would be for them after this, and I couldn’t think of any answers. Maybe that’s the way it should be and I have been too conditioned to the “happily ever after” tone set by other films.

Raising Victor Vargas was shot on a low budget, but it was shot quite well. Director Peter Sollet has brought out some terrific performances from his young stars, and put them in a setting of the idleness of summer, hot and baring all while having little else to do but explore each other. There are a couple of times I didn’t like the camera angles, but it fits the tone of the sequence quite well, creating a sense of confusion in the viewer that matches what’s happening on the screen.

I liked Raising Victor Vargas a lot. The performances by all of the young stars were very good and right on the money. I enjoyed the secondary stories almost more than the story of Victor and Judy. There were enough lighthearted moments among the teens that it wasn’t a completely depressing film, but unlike others, I didn’t feel like there would be a positive future for these kids after watching it.