Raising Victor Vargas: credible portrait of adolescent love
The toast of Sundance and Cannes, PETER SOLLETT’s film about adolescent love in Manhattan is the latest American independent hit. Words: Tom Dawson
aising Vft'IUI' Vargas may be set in a inner city
environment on Manhattan's Lower East Side.
but it‘s not a tale of drugs-and—guns in the hood. Instead its Brooklyn-born writer-director Peter Sollett chose to focus his debut feature on the adolescent romance between two central teenage characters (played by newcomers Victor Rasuk and Judy Martel. The film provides a credible portrait of the hesitancies and confusions of teenage love — credible enough to receive high praise from film festivals as far flung as Sundance. Cannes. Toronto and San Sebastian.
‘The screenplay came into existence from the lives of
the kids in the film.‘ explains the softly-spoken 26-year- old Sollett. ‘They are playing characters who have a relationship with who they actually are. Guns and drugs
and abortions and violence aren't the central aspects of
their lives. so why should they be the central aspects of a film relating to what their lives are‘.’ I find that stuff really boring and I don't have anything to add to it. It was important for the film to be as universal as possible: these are teenagers trying to work out how to live with one another and with their families.‘
It was while casting his student film Five Fear High and Rising. made during his last year at New York University's Tisch School of Arts. that Sollett and his producer Eva Vives discovered a number of enthusiastic and talented Latino teenagers. in particular Rasuk and Marte. who had turned up to the open casting sessions. Consequently. Sollett changed the setting of his autobiographical short from Bensonhurst to a Latino neighbourhood. and after the shoot stayed in close touch with his actors.
‘We got to know them as people and saw how much they had to offer and saw how good they were.‘ says Sollett. ‘We realised that we should do a film directly
22 THE LIST 18 Sep—2 Oct 2003
‘The screenplay came Into existence from the lives of the kids in the film'
about their experiences. It was clear that Victor and Judy wanted to continue acting and I really wanted to do something that would be more available in a commercial arena. so that more people could see it. ()n the shoot I had to convince them that what they were doing in their everyday lives were of value and were interesting. When they saw the film with an audience. they began to see themselves as having interesting points of view and having things to say.’
Sollett cast Victor's real-life brother Silvestre as his on-screen sibling Nino. and had Judy's close pal Melonie Dial. playing her fictional best friend. Melonie. The hardest part to fill was that of Victor's domineering Dominican grandmother. A relative of the casting director was eventually given the role and the 74-year- old Altagracia Guzman proved to be a consummate scene-stealer. ‘She's one of a kind.‘ smiles the director. ‘She has a massive personality. When she walks into a room. she owns it. and everybody becomes her grandchildren. She insisted on being called Grandma — I guess she must be a natural Method actress. She's also a natural comedian. and she got so carried away in scenes that she'd start petitioning the crew to help her with the kids. She'd turn to the cameraman Tim On and say. “(Tan you believe what I have to deal with?”
In terms of its storytelling and the way it values atmosphere over plot. Raising Victor Vargas feels more European than American. and its creator is outspoken about the way Hollywood studios ‘short-change the intelligence of American audiences'. As Sollett puts it: ‘lt would be great if audiences took care of the demand side and stopped going to those films.’
Raising Victor Vargas is on selected release from Fri 19 Sep. See review, page 25.
Lights. camera. action.’
EDINBURGH'S FILMHOUSE HAS programmed a season of Widescreen mowes from Friday 19 September — iust because it can. Deep breath; behold the endless desert Vistas in DaVId Leah's Lawence of Arabia, Paul Newman playing pool fast and loose in The Hustler, psychology at w0rk in the western in Sam Fuller's legendary B- mOVIe 40 Guns. Kirk Douglas taking on the might of the Roman army in Stanley Kubrick's SpartaCLis. Brigitte Bardot BlG lmmml in Jean-Luc Godard's Le Mepris. sexual perversity in San FranCisco in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. Burt Lancaster dubbed into Italian in Luchino Visconti's The Leopard. samurai swordplay in Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fonress. the greatest ghost stOry ever in Robert Wise's The Haunting and the western thorougth deconstructed in Sergio Leone's spaghetti masterpiece Once Upon a Time in the West. Glorious Just ain't a good enOugh word. It's enOugh to bring a tear to the eye of Dr Derek Norman.
Fast, loose and on the widescreen
MEANWHILE, OVER IN
Glasgow, Document 1: The International Human Rights Festival is running at the UGC from Friday 19—Monday 22 September. It's part of the Spirit Aid Festival of Peace, and well worth checking out if you care for your fellow human in any way whatsoever. For more info, email documentt firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.spiritaid.org.uk. Go on, do the right thing.
CINEMA HISTORY IS BEING MADE before Our very eyes; if you have a super fast broadband internet connection. that is. Director Billie Eltringham and writer Simon Beauny's digitally shot thriller, This is Not a Love Song, is being released in Cinemas and. Simultaneously, on the internet. Thus. you can nip along to Edinburgh's Filmhouse and watch the film old skool style. or you can download the entire movie onto y0ur computer and sownt at the re5ults. Perhaps there's nothing new in that. except that unlike soumting at The Matrix Revolutions. you‘d be breaking no laws.