Saturday, August 29, 2015

Raising Victor Vargas

3.5/4

Starring: Victor Rasuk, Judy Marte, Altagracia Guzman, Krystal Rodriguez, Silvestre Rasuk, Melonie Diaz, Kevin Rivera

Rated R for Strong Language

It's interesting, isn't it, how hokey and corny romances like "Twilight" or any other of the recent crop of romances aimed at tween girls make tons of money while movies like "Before Sunrise" are overlooked and ignored.  It's not as if teenagers can't connect with them (when I was in high school, people would always talk about movies like "Requiem for a Dream" or "American History X," not the latest Michael Bay extravaganza).  Hollywood has a distressing habit of underestimating the intelligence of moviegoers, and as a result thoughtful and honest films fall by the wayside...if they're made at all.

Victor Vargas (Rasuk) is the ultimate player of the Lower East Side; he's as sexy as he is charming, and can woo any woman to bed with a single pick-up line.  At least that's what he'd like to believe, but that's not the reality.  The best he can do is Fat Donna (Donna Maldonaldo), much to the delight of his sister Vicki (Rodriguez) and his best friend Harold (Rivera).  Word gets around, and in an attempt to save face (not to mention the arousal of his hormones), he attempts to score a date with "Juicy" Judy (Marte), the local unattainable hottie.  Judy isn't falling for Victor's charms, but he doesn't take no for an answer.  Eventually she does go out with him, but makes it clear that she's a real woman with her own feelings and desires, not some bimbo who will fall for any stud with a good pick-up line.  Eventually Victor has to grow up and learn that in order to get with Judy, he must first respect her.

In many ways, "Raising Victor Vargas" is the antithesis of your typical Hollywood romantic comedy.  It shows guys that women won't automatically sleep with them as long as they're good looking and have clever pick-up lines (any sex comedy) and that women don't need to be "protected" by a man ("Twilight," anyone?).  These characters are human beings with flaws, foibles and feelings.  Romance is messy and complicated, but the search for honesty leads to some great rewards.  Don't get the idea that this is a preach-fest.  No, "Raising Victor Vargas" gets its message across almost incidentally; it's real goal is character interaction, and it succeeds.

For the most part, the film is strongly acted.  The leads, Victor Rasuk and Judy Marte, are fantastic, which makes sense since they're simply replaying the characters they played in the short film that this was based on (also made by Peter Sollett, although Eva Vives helped with the screenplay for the film).  Initially, Victor seems like your average horny teenager: cocky and full of bluster.  But he has his own feelings and insecurities, particularly how his grandmother (Guzman) fears him and his influence over his younger siblings Nino (Rasuk) and Vicki.  Judy is also not what she seems at the beginning.  At first she seems to be your typical prickly man-hater who's playing hard to get.  But she doesn't hate men, she just hates all the piggish morons that just want to score with her.  She has feelings after all.  Also worth mentioning is Altagracia Guzman, who plays Grandma.  It would have been too easy for Sollett to turn her into a comic caricature.  He resists the temptation, and instead presents her as a devout Catholic who loves her grandchildren but doesn't like the fact that they are growing up too fast for her liking.  The weak link is Kevin Rivera.  As the cocky, ebonic-speaking Harold, he's annoying and rather slimy.  Fortunately, his screen time is minimal.

Director Peter Sollett takes great care in nurturing the development of his characters and their relationships.  He takes his time and lets them breathe.  That's a good thing because they're fascinating and refreshingly real.  There are no caricatures here, and Sollett doesn't go for cheap laughs.  The film's funniest scene, even though it's a sex joke, is hilarious because it has been set up so well.  Probably due to the low budget, the film was shot on digital video with a handheld camera.  That gives the film a documentary, naturalistic feel (without going too far...unlike some movies).

In a totally boneheaded move, the MPAA gave the film an R rating for the use of profanity.  Yes, there's quite a bit of swearing.  I would even argue that there's a little more swearing than necessary.  But you know what?  Teenagers swear more than necessary in real life too.  Wouldn't it make more sense to allow teenagers to see movies about them where they can relate to the characters?  God help them if they actually learn something from it.

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