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Lower East Side Story

By David Sterritt / April 11, 2003



"Raising Victor Vargas" illustrates an ironic truth of filmmaking that taps into ethnicity and race. Movies are great at capturing details of speech, body language, and behavior - so great that talented screen artists can present authentic-seeming views of cultures quite different from the ones they hail from.

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Peter Sollett, who directed "Raising Victor Vargas," launched his career in 2000 with a short movie called "Five Feet High and Rising," based on his youth in a Jewish and Italian urban neighborhood. When he was casting it, the young actors he liked most came from his current neighborhood, which had a largely Latino population. So he changed the names of the characters and altered his script accordingly.

The experience was so rewarding that Mr. Sollett spent the next two years hanging out with his new Latino friends and developing a movie that would grow directly from their world. The result is "Raising Victor Vargas," now arriving in theaters after opening this year's edition of New York's prestigious New Directors/New Films Festival, presented by the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

The title character is an ordinary teen who's brash and self-assured in some ways, vulnerable in others. The plot centers on his courtship of a girl whose standoffish manner masks a sensitivity not unlike his own, and on his domestic difficulties with a grandma who hasn't quite figured out the modern world they live in.

The movie's most impressive aspect is its smooth integration of documentary-style detail - it has all the gritty textures of the Lower East Side district where it was shot - with a likable, compelling story. Its most heartening aspect is its depiction of an urban scene populated by youngsters who don't enjoy their poverty and hardship but don't let it overwhelm them, either.

At once sympathetic and unsentimental, this is a model of low-budget storytelling on a human scale.

Rated R; contains vulgar language.

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