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Victor is growing up on the Lower East Side and is at the age where he is driven by desire and unchained by maturity. His image as a ladies man is shattered when he is found in Fat Donna's bedroom. Soon, as a result of his sister's big mouth, the whole Dominican community knows. Full of confidence, Victor sets out to reclaim his image by winning Judy. Judy proves to be elusive and difficult. Victor persists, and with a surprising tenderness, ultimately wins Judy's heart. Written by
You know, Raising Victor Vargas is like sticking your hands into a big, steaming bowl of oatmeal. It's warm and gooey, but you're not sure if it feels right. Try as I might, no matter how warm and gooey Raising Victor Vargas became I was always aware that something didn't quite feel right. Victor Vargas suffers from a certain overconfidence on the director's part. Apparently, the director thought that the ethnic backdrop of a Latino family on the lower east side, and an idyllic storyline would make the film critic proof. He was right, but it didn't fool me. Raising Victor Vargas is the story about a seventeen-year old boy called, you guessed it, Victor Vargas (Victor Rasuk) who lives his teenage years chasing more skirt than the Rolling Stones could do in all the years they've toured. The movie starts off in `Ugly Fat' Donna's bedroom where Victor is sure to seduce her, but a cry from outside disrupts his plans when his best-friend Harold (Kevin Rivera) comes-a-looking for him. Caught in the attempt by Harold and his sister, Victor Vargas runs off for damage control. Yet even with the embarrassing implication that he's been boffing the homeliest girl in the neighborhood, nothing dissuades young Victor from going off on the hunt for more fresh meat. On a hot, New York City day they make way to the local public swimming pool where Victor's eyes catch a glimpse of the lovely young nymph Judy (Judy Marte), who's not just pretty, but a strong and independent too. The relationship that develops between Victor and Judy becomes the focus of the film. The story also focuses on Victor's family that is comprised of his grandmother or abuelita (Altagracia Guzman), his brother Nino (also played by real life brother to Victor, Silvestre Rasuk) and his sister Vicky (Krystal Rodriguez). The action follows Victor between scenes with Judy and scenes with his family. Victor tries to cope with being an oversexed pimp-daddy, his feelings for Judy and his grandmother's conservative Catholic upbringing.
The problems that arise from Raising Victor Vargas are a few, but glaring errors. Throughout the film you get to know certain characters like Vicky, Nino, Grandma, Judy and even Judy's best friend Melonie. The problem is, we know nothing of Victor Vargas except that he is the biggest gigolo in the neighborhood. We know that he knows how to lick his lips, and comb his fro, and carry himself for the sake of wooing girls into the sack, but that's all. We know that Nino plays piano, and quiet well, you could see it by the awards on the family piano. We know his sister Nicki, is a gossip-loving girl with an invested interest in watching TV. We know that grandma is a hard-working traditional Latina woman who's trying to raise her kids with conservatively in a world of excess corruption. Yet where is the titular character, Victor Vargas? He's in this movie somewhere, but we only know what the movie tells us. This is by far the film's biggest flaw. Victor Vargas isn't so much a character but a ping-pong ball, bouncing between scenes with Judy and his Grandmother, but we never get to know who Victor Vargas really is. This is important because as I've mentioned the only thing we know of Victor Vargas is that he's a sexually active teenager with a libido the size of Manhattan. He's a total Alpha-male. Victor Vargas is not the kind of character I sympathize with at all. Why should anyone? So by the end of the movie, in the aftermath of the climax are we truly led to believe that somehow Victor Vargas has attained ANY depth and learned the errors of his ways? How could such a two-dimensional character have any depth? If only the director had worried a little more about fleshing out his main character instead of worrying about getting that perfect hand-held shot.
Raising Victor Vargas brings to life the world of the Latino inner-city neighborhood to the big screen. Something that few films have done before in the past. The film has been complimented for feeling so real, and I won't
argue with that. I haven't seen this level of reality since CBS aired Survivor. Seriously, although the movie has some nice shots of the city, the writer/director Peter Sollett was way too dependent on close-ups and hand-held shots. This problem is particularly noticed in indoor scenes that are so claustrophobic I was forced to perform deep-breathing exercises to keep from passing out. As the film continues, the shots get tighter and tighter with faces cropped from brow to chin on the screen; you can practically smell Victor Vargas's cheap cologne. The overall effect is unrealistic in contrast. The indoor scenes of inner-city apartments make them look small and cramp, which is not true. I've been in those type apartments; I used to live in one. They're not splendorous but they have high ceilings and they're decent living spaces. By the movie's standards you'd think that these apartments were 5x5 cells of brick-and-mortar, chipped paint and cracked walls. Unfortunately, Sollett's constant use of close-ups and one particularly bad shot with a zoom-in on one scene come off as totally amateurish. But Raising Victor Vargas is only Sollett's second film, and his most well known, a solid effort in filmmaking that will hopefully get better as he continues to make films. One review I read summarized the movie as, `Ethnicity for Ethnicity's Sake,' and I cannot agree more. If Victor Vargas were truly a great film and story, then the characters' applicability wouldn't matter whether they were Latino, Chinese, etc. Yet if you were to take this story and stick it in middle-class suburbia with a bunch of teeny-bopper white kids the results wouldn't be such glowing reviews, and we'd see the film's flaws more clearly. Indeed, some other aspects of the use of Latinos in this film bother me. While some aspects of Victor Vargas are accurate others I have to question. For example, Victor, Nino and Vicky all share the same room to sleep. This set off an alarm for me because it seemed contrary to what I believe. Any self-respecting Latino family wouldn't have two older brothers sharing the same room with a thirteen-year old girl. At first I was unsure, perhaps I was wrong, but after speaking with my grandmother I knew my problem with this was justified. Considering how conservative the grandmother is, you'd think that Vicky would have been sleeping in her room.
As a Latino who grew up in a somewhat conservative Cuban household, raised by my grandmother while my mother was working full-time, I could relate to the movie in many ways, which is why my critical viewpoints are bittersweet because I really wanted to love this movie. Unfortunately, my lack of respect for Victor Vargas sabotaged my feelings for the film. Maybe it's because Victor Vargas reminds me of those guys who were getting laid while I was playing with my Sega Genesis when I was seventeen. Maybe it's because without any further introspection by the film, Victor Vargas is merely a stereotypical hot-blooded Latino, who'll just end up shouting to girls from his car, `Hey bay-bee, ju want to get into my luv Mah-Cheen?' Either way I don't like him, so ultimately how can I like a film about him? So if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go stick my hands into a bowl of grits.
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