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Raising Victor Vargas: Special Edition

Combining the aesthetics of neo-realism, cinema verité and gritty, urban-guerrilla filmmaking, Raising Victor Vargas (2002), director Peter Sollett's unconventional tale of family, love, sexuality and coming of age, is one of the most impressive debut features by a director in years. Set in a tiny corner of Manhattan's Lower East Side during the sweltering heat of summer, Sollett and co-writer Eva Vives introduce the audience to the center of their cinematic universe — Victor Vargas (Victor Rasuk). A 16-year-old ticking time bomb of sexual energy, Victor thinks he's a grown-up, but as the story progresses it becomes painfully apparent how naive he really is. For all his macho bluster and posing, he really doesn't know much of anything. In fact, Victor is hopelessly lost within the twisted labyrinth of adolescence as he takes his first real steps down the path to manhood. Living in a cramped apartment with his younger siblings and conservative grandmother (Altagracia Guzman), Victor enjoys a reputation as a neighborhood ladies' man. But his reputation on the street is jeopardized when word leaks out that he's bangin' his upstairs neighbor, the infamous "Fat" Donna (Donna Maldonado). Determined not only to preserve his reputation but to elevate himself to legendary status, Victor sets his sights on "Juicy" Judy Ramirez (Judy Marte), the hottest girl on the block. When Judy agrees to be Victor's girlfriend, he thinks he's hit the big time, but he's in for rude awakening when he slowly begins to realize that Judy has ulterior motives. Don't be fooled by the plot into thinking Raising Victor Vargas is a throwback to raunchy teen sex comedies like American Pie. Nor is it like Y Tu Mamá También. Rather, Vargas is an emotionally complex, character-driven film with an authenticity that evokes the stylish naturalism of John Cassavetes. The cast of unknowns and first-time actors help infuse the picture with a sense of reality and emotional density that is all too rare in most films. Rasuk manages to carry much of the movie on his lean shoulders, while Marte's haunting, natural beauty makes her totally believable as the neighborhood object of desire. But the real star of the piece is Guzman, who steals every scene she's in as Victor's overbearing grandmother. These characters seem so authentic that it feels at times as if we're spying on real people and seeing things we're not supposed to see; we even feel guilty for watching. For the double-dip, Columbia TriStar recycles Raising Victor Vargas as a special edition with the original anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) and Dolby 2.0 Surround audio, but the disc now has some substantial extras. A commentary track features director Sollett, stars Melonie Diaz, Judy Marte, Victor Rasuk, Altagracia Guzman, and co-writer Eva Vives, but the most insightful extra is the short film "Five Feet High and Rising" (30 min.), which provided much of the story (and cast) for Vargas four years earlier. This short has been included on previous DVDs, including as the Short series (Vol. 10) and the Film Fest series (Vol. 5). It appears that the featurette "Five feet High and Rising Companion" (10 min.) was included with the Short disc, and it is replicated here. Also included are a photo gallery and bonus trailers. Keep-case.
—David Walker

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