Raising Victor Vargas

TIFF 2002: ‘Raising Victor Vargas’ Film Review

by W. Andrew Powell

With the look of a well fleshed out biopic or documentary, Raising Victor Vargas (also known as Long Way Home) is a fresh and innocent sort of film. It’s the convincing story about what it’s like to be a teenager named Victor Vargas, a 17 year-old guy living in the middle of your classic urban sprawl in a distinctly Latino neighbourhood. This is a community that screams honesty and truth, and doesn’t layer on any ridiculous street music, hatred, or cliched wisdom like you get in many other films.

Victor Rasuk stars as Victor, a somewhat brash, charismatic guy who lives with his brother (Silvestre Rasuk, seemingly Victor’s real brother playing Nino Vargas) and sister (Krystal Rodriguez as Vicki Vargas), who are all raised by their grandmother (the wonderfully stern and bewildered Altagracia Guzman) in the epitome of rundown urbania, in the middle of a community in New York with it’s own culture, style, and emotion. The film starts with Victor wooing a girl that he wants to have a little fun with, but doesn’t want anyone else to find out he’s with. Too bad that before he can do anything, his sister has grabbed the news and spread it around between her friends, who quickly spread the gossip.

Shortly after, Victor finds himself with his best-friend (Wilfree Vasquez as Carlos) at the nearby pool where Victor can’t help but approach Judy (a dream of young-woman played resolutely by Judy Marte). Little does Victor know that although Judy might be the prettiest girl around, she’s also probably got one of the biggest chips on her shoulder too. As the film unfolds, Victor tries to ingratiate himself into Judy’s life, and very quickly, it’s his family that feels the repercussions of Victor’s new love interest.

Raising Victor Vargas isn’t what you might expect though. Nobody dies of a weird disease, nobody gets shot, there’s little or no violence to speak of, and the biggest problems seem to actually be finding love and being true to yourself while still keeping your family happy. This is an idealist’s film, with a poetic style and a documentary approach that catapults otherwise novice actors, playing characters named after themselves, into wonderful moments of sincerity that reach out and grab you.

I think going into the film I expected a lot of things – you know all the cliches that films throw around today when anyone shows a scene in the inner-city, but Raising Victor Vargas isn’t like that at all, it’s more serene and innocent, with some of the most weighted silences and effective acting that I’ve seen in a film like this.

I don’t actually even know what year the film is supposed to be set in. I think that it might be somewhere in the late 70’s or 80’s, but I don’t really want to check because the ambiguity lends a wonderful mystery to this film… it doesn’t even matter what city this is, it’s the characters and their lives that’s important.

Another wonderful point of the film is being able to respect all of the characters. They all come across as wonderful people who can love and they can hate, but the flaws are only pieces of how beautiful they are. From the stranger characters, like Judy’s friend Melonie (Melonie Diaz, who has some great scenes with Carlos), to Victor’s grandmother, they breath a life into every scene and make you happy and sad at the smallest victory and the tiniest defeat.

Still, the film is basically all about a non-event. It’s like one big Seinfeld episode, but it’s sometimes even slower than that. There is really very little plot development as the film progresses. What we get instead is character growth and understanding that draws people together, and even as people fall in love, we don’t see torrid looking romances that end with two people rolling in bed, instead we get heartbreakingly honest scenes that can almost make you cry with a single kiss that is more pivotal and heartfelt than I could have expected.

Basically, this is a story about kids, trust, and self-image, and what it means to begin to find yourself. It’s like a documentary, but it’s slicker and more well produced, and it’s got one of the most powerful ensemble casts that I’ve seen. You’ll laugh and you might even cry, but despite the simple style and slow progress of the film, you won’t be bored for a minute, because life, even when you’re just living the simplest days, isn’t boring.

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