Authentic. It's pretty much impossible to write about "Raising Victor Vargas", the feature film debut of director Peter Sollett, without using the word authentic. Charming will be hard to avoid too. I'm not even gonna try.
On Wednesday I went to a screening of "Vargas", which is based on his now legendary short film "5 Feet High and Rising". I was worried coming into it because I adored his original short, and wasn't sure he'd be able to reproduce that magic. But Sollett pulled it off, big time, and delivered the most, yes, charming movie you'll probably see all year.
For "5 Feet High and Rising" Sollett gathered a cast of kids from his Lower East Side neighborhood, and soon found the kids were much more interesting when the cameras were off and they put the script down. So he threw out the script and let them basically improv the whole film, and his understated presentation was the perfect vehicle to capture his young cast's tremendous charm. In the full-length "Vargas", Sollet has done a masterful job of fleshing out the original while retaining its beautiful simplicity, and produced an incredibly authentic and endearing slice of life in the L.E.S. barrio.
Most of the kids from 5 Feet High and Rising return for this one, including the leads Victor Rasuk and Judy Marte. They look a little older, but have lost none of their decidedly un-hollywood charisma. Again improvising most of the dialogue, they come across as so real, so genuinely innocent, you can't imagine them being any different offscreen. It was shocking when the kids came out for the Q&A, kicking Hollywood actor lingo and seeming so much more worldly and mature than the kids in the film. I kept thinking "oh my god, did little Victor just use the word 'aesthetic'??"
Movies with no script (at the Q&A Sollett said he wrote one but never showed it to the actors) can easily collapse into 90 minutes of aimless meandering, but Sollett's light touch keeps things moving forward throughout. He films with an elegantly simple style: no stylized trick shots, natural lighting, little if any background music. Almost like dogme 95, but instead of the drab visuals we get from those angsty European dudes, cinematographer Tim Orr (of George Washington) fills the screen with warm sunshine and vibrant colors, so that even the grungiest project apartments seem to glow.
The warmth of those visuals reminded me of "Do The Right Thing", and "Vargas" has a lot in common Spike Lee's masterpiece. Just as Spike's love for his people and his community seemed to shine from each frame, every scene and every shot of "Raising Victor Vargas" is unmistakably driven by Peter Sollett's deep love for these kids (and their grandma), and this neighborhood. And just as "Do The Right Thing" was a revelation for me because I saw my world portrayed on film for the first time, "Raising Victor Vargas" should bring that same thrill to a new generation of kids from the barrio, seeing themselves so lovingly and vividly rendered on the big screen.
Basically, yep, this is an irresistibly charming and authentic film. I highly, highly recommend it.