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RAISING VICTOR VARGAS
Special Edition

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Victor Rasuk, Judy Marte, Melonie Diaz, Altagracia Guzman, Kevin Rivera, Silvestre Rasuk, Wilfree Vasquez
Director: Peter Sollett
Audio: Dolby Surround
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Columbia Tri Star
Features: See Review
Length: 88 Minutes
Release Date: August 24, 2004

Film ***

Coming of age stories used to be a frequent sort of genre in cinema's yesteryear. We've hardly seen any recently, perhaps because people were extraordinarily tired of seeing the same old retread done over and over again. Every so often, though, we get such a movie that manages to stand out in a really big way.

Raising Victor Vargas is easily the best film of this sort to come around in quite some time. In terms of coming-of-age films, it may fall short of two recent films; Better Luck Tomorrow and Denzel Washington's Antwone Fisher, simply because that film was a coming of age story that happened to be a hundred percent true. To its credit, though, Raising Victor Vargas is strong on many levels, most notably for its authenticity and all around pure honesty in its characters.

Set in New York's Lower East Side, the film centers on the title character, Victor Vargas, a sixteen year old Romeo-wannabe. Although he lives in a two bedroom apartment, with his brother, sister, and extremely strict grandmother, Victor has a reputation of being a ladies man to protect. That rep is soon threatened once word starts spreading around the neighborhood that he attempted to lose his virginity to a girl named Fat Donna.

In order to fix any damage his rep may have suffered, he tries to execute some quick damage control by attempting to hook up with Judy (Judy Marte), or "Juicy Judy" as she's known to her friends. Judy is quite the beauty, but she is also untouchable, and isn't about to put up with any more disgusting proposals from just about every guy in the neighborhood, least of all Victor's.

But after some persistency from Victor, Judy is more impressed than turned off, so much to the point that she agrees to "pretend" to be Victor's girl just so that all the other guys stop proposing such unflattering requests. Her best friend, Melonie (Melonie Diaz), suggests that she try and give Victor a serious try. Meanwhile, Melonie is starting a fling of her own with Harold (Kevin Rivera), Victor's closest friend who helped him in meeting Judy.

At the same time, Victor's home life is nothing short of a mess. He consistently has to put up with his lazy and annoying younger sister, Vicki (Krystal Rodriguez) who hardly ever leaves the couch; his younger and more potential-bound brother, Nino (Silvestre Rasuk) who worships him; and most of all his firm Catholic raised grandmother (Altagracia Guzman). Fearing that Victor is engaging in unsavory actions outside their home, which he isn't, and teaching his siblings vulgar habits, grandmother frequently considers kicking Victor out of their home.

By now, it's more clear than ever that the one thing saving Victor from destruction is his relationship with Judy. At the point when their bond goes beyond the pretend stage and into that of an actual love affair, the film really displays elements of realness and pure authenticity. This is a most honest portrayal of a young couple in love that could only be brought to life through that of an independent film.

Though it doesn't pretend at any stage to be anything that doesn't resemble a low budget release, Raising Victor Vargas is certainly one of the more honest depictions of teenagers coming of age that we're use to seeing. For me, it was certainly refreshing to see something that didn't seem completely artificial, as so many mainstream films of its type mostly are. For achieving those levels, this film deserves immense credit.

Video ***

Despite its low budget filming qualities, this anamorphic presentation from Columbia Tri Star does make the most of it, in terms of impressive video quality. The images mostly consist of bright reds and browns, conveying the feel of the neighborhood, and even numerous indoor shots, specifically that of the Victor's apartment, appear quite nicely as well. In other words, better than you might expect.

Audio **1/2

The provided 2.0 channel mix does the most it can with a film that is completely driven by the written words of the screenplay. Several set pieces do provide a nice kick of range (scenes in crowded areas, etc.) Other than that element, the end result is an effective display of sound through a limited source, if there is such a thing.

Features ***

Columbia Tri Star has provided quite a nice list of features to make for a Special Edition re-issue. First off, there is a commentary track with writer/director Peter Sollett and several members of the cast. Also included is a short film titled "Five Feet High and Rising", as well as a companion featurette on the making of that short film. Lastly, there are some production stills and bonus trailers.

Summary:

Raising Victor Vargas is a prime example of real and effective storytelling through the venue of independent filmmaking. If you yearn for honesty in a portrait of love story, this film is quite a worthy viewing.

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