Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Apr 29, 2003 10:02 pm 
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Fragile Perfection

Peter Sollett, the director of "Raising Victor Vargas," chose to set his movie (and an earlier, related short) in the Dominican neighborhood of Lower East Side Manhattan after kids from there gave great auditions. The scenes are entirely improvised and the actors come directly out of the environment that they represent on screen. Victor's brother Nino is played by the actor Victor Razuk's real brother, Silvestre. They look very alike too: Nino is just a younger, shyer, purer version of Victor, with the same thin wiry body, long well formed features, sweet ingratiating smile and wonderful big wooly hair.

We may be reminded of David Gordon Green's "George Washington" here, the southern first film about young, mostly black kids that was so much praised in 2000 and also features young people who improvise their dialogue. But the plot of "Victor Vargas" is about a boy of about sixteen and his first romance, his family conflicts, and his relationships outside the family during a short time in the summer. This is a light and bright and highly focused movie without the darkness and strangeness and ruminations of "George Washington." It also lacks the large-screen compositions of "George Washington" and instead creates its characteristic warmth and intimacy through tight close-ups of its actors' faces. There's no guile in these faces: what you see is what you get.

As "Victor Vargas" begins, skinny, smiling Victor is caught trying to lose his virginity with Fat Donna, a notoriously loose girl on another floor of his apartment building. He strips and flexes his scrawny muscles before his pal's yelling from the sidewalk breaks things off. The exhibitionism is naïve and reveals Victor's innocence. His irritable sister Vicki (Krystal Rodriguez), herself overweight, threatens to tell everybody what he was just up to.

Victor goes to the local swimming pool with his buddy Harold (Kevin Rivera), intent on erasing his shame by getting a nice looking girlfriend who'll make everybody forget the rumor about the fat girl upstairs. The young lady selected, Judy (Judy Marte), utterly rejects him and implies that his direct approach is unmannerly, but he continues to pursue his mission and since we see that she's besieged by predatory boys in the neighborhood, we understand when she tentatively accepts him as official boyfriend. As she tells her sidekick Melonie (Melonie Diaz), who's interested in Victor's pal Harold, Victor will serve as "bug spray" to repel the obscene advances of the other meaner, more threatening boys.

Victor and Judy are almost courtly with each other. She wants to keep him at arm's length, and he wants to dispel his initial over-aggressive impression by being very polite and respectful. Meanwhile their two friends, Melonie and Harold, relative ugly ducklings who both wear glasses, get together, remove their glasses and other encumbrances, and make rapid progress toward a sexual relationship.

Victor and his brother both have trouble with their grandmother, who's the sole adult in the household. Grandma (Altagracia Guzman) thinks Victor, with his "Player" ambitions, is a bad boy and because his younger brother is religious, idealizes him and regards him as pure, till she catches him masturbating in the bathroom. But even this she blames on Victor's bad influence. Grandma is a simple country woman and her values are without nuance. She takes the family to the youth authority and tries to turn Victor over to them. A black woman in the office explains that there's no justification for this, since Victor has done nothing wrong, and warns that Grandma's turning him out into the street would be illegal.

All these scenes have an even greater simplicity and directness because they are improvised and there's no calculation or complication in the dialogue. It's almost generic, except that every line is uttered convincingly because the speakers are firmly within a context close to their own actual experience. Their gift for improvisation is innate.

Judy comes to dinner but when Grandma correctly suspects that Victor has made a deal, fixing up Judy's brother with his sister to get a second introduction to Judy through her brother, she's shocked at this Machiavellian (and rather farcical) scheming, and tries to throw Victor out again, threatening that once he goes, he'll be locked out. He leaves anyway, reminding her of the social worker's warning, and Judy goes out too.

They find each other in a secluded spot and for the first time have a long kiss. This final scene, when Judy confesses that Victor is really her first "man," is so tender and sweet you just love them. There is a delicacy, warmth, and authenticity about this scene that's quite unusual in movies. It's a moment of hushed intimacy rarely, if ever, achieved in more elaborate and stagey productions.

Judy Marte is reminiscent of Chloe Sevigny in "Kids" and "Boys Don't Cry" (she has the same combination of elegance and innocent sincerity), but Victor isn't like anybody I've ever seen on screen before. He is cute and gawkily macho in a special Latino way. The harshness of Victor's family's simple life and his grandmother's brutal firmness are mitigated by the summer atmosphere and his focus on romance, his natural charm, and his desire to please.

"Raising Victor Vargas" is a splendid success. It's a little like an amateur's painting that turns out to be beautiful as if by luck. You may feel that there's a fragility about the whole world depicted by the movie (there is) and that without any one of these simple but exactly right choices of setting and cast and subject matter it would all disintegrate (it might), but the director knows very well what he is doing and his success is no accident. There is never a loss of focus or momentum. Viewers used to more studied effects may feel a trifle let down when it's all so quickly over. But thinking back, we realize that perfection was achieved and that with the simplest of means, something absolutely original and unique was created.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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