Raising Victor Vargas, 88 mins, rated M, opening in cinemas on 23 October 2003

(This review originally appeared in the NSW Law Society Journal).

Victor Vargas (Victor Rasuk) is a 16- or 17-year-old Latino boy living on the lower east side of New York City. He lives in a tiny apartment with his younger brother, Nino (Silvestre Rasuk), and his sister Vicki (Krystal Rodriguez). “Raising” Victor Vargas is his grandmother (Altagracia Guzman), who came to the United States from the Dominican Republic. The family is poor (the three kids share one bedroom and the two boys share one bed. The only sign of the children’s parents is a framed photograph with cracked glass. Where are they? Has the photograph been smashed in anger? We will never know.

 As the film opens, Victor is facing the camera, licking his lips and getting ready for a love conquest. Victor is a ladies’ man (or thinks he is). At first I found it hard to follow the actors’ Latino-African-American accents, but this wasn’t a major problem. It just takes a while for the ear to adjust. This is a different world, after all.

Victor’s is a poor, single parent (or grandparent) family, living in a dangerous city known for drugs, gangs and crime. The set-up is familiar. It sounds like we’ve seen this film before. But no, this family is not dysfunctional. They’ve got it together, and the grandmother rules the family with an iron rod. The danger that threatens the kids is hardly ever overt – but it is always there in the background. It’s there in the way some of the young men hassle the young women, the way they speak to them in sexually explicit terms, and it’s there on the fringes of the frame.

Despite this familiar setting, the one word that describes this film perfectly is “fresh”. There’s a totally charming performance by Victor Rasuk as Victor Vargas. He plays Vargas as confident, but with an uncertain undertone. Both the girls – Krystal Rodriguez as Victor’s sister Vicki, and Judy Marte as Judy, the girl Victor is after – give lovely, subtle performances. Both have the most expressive eyes. The rest of the cast is terrific too, which is remarkable, since all the actors are non - professionals. As I say, the word is “fresh”.

The director, too, is an ingénue. Peter Sollett is 27 years old and this is his first feature film. He knows the story, because it is basically his story, transplanted from Bensonhurst to lower east side Manhattan and to a Latino family. He filmed the story first as Five Feet High and Rising, a short film that was his thesis at New York University’s film school.

Sollett does wonderful close-ups, getting gorgeous intimacy from the ensemble cast. The film is both funny and sweet. There are moments that will have you laughing while you are choking back the tears. Victor and his siblings, despite all the evils of the big city and all the temptations on offer, are basically good kids. Sometimes Grandma is so worried about them that she can’t see that she has very little to worry about.

In one funny-sad scene Grandma is so exasperated with Victor, for something she confusedly believes he’s done, that she takes him down to the local social services office and tries to “give him up”. In a moment only too rare at the movies, the social worker listens politely to Grandma’s complaints, acts fairly and gets it right. It’d never happen in a Ken Loach film!

 Sollett tells his tale slowly, in a series of scenes about the minutiae of these kids’ young lives. It is only at the end of the film that you realise that each of these scenes has been slowly moving the picture forward to its conclusion, building layer upon layer of detail, adding to the intensity of feeling. Raising Victor Vargas is a bright shining gem of a film. It reminds you of just how keenly you felt every little thing when you were a teenager.