Raising Victor Vargas (opens Friday, May 30, at the Little) is equal parts George Washington, Our Song,and Kids. So if you're a fan of American independent films with no-name, inexperienced, yet completely convincing adolescent acting talent, do yourself a favor and check it out pronto. Like those three pictures, Vargas features a large cast of young people, and it doesn't place them in unbelievable situations or make them spout irritating Dawson-speak. Its story plays like a slice of real life.
The eponymous Victor Vargas is an overconfident 17-year-old (Victor Rasuk), who shares a two-bedroom, third-floor walkup in a Dominican enclave of Manhattan's Lower East Side with a younger brother (real-life sibling Silvestre Rasuk), a younger sister (Krystal Rodriguez), and their hardcore Catholic grandmother (Altagracia Guzman), who has been stuck raising them all by herself. As the film opens, Victor has just about talked himself into the bed of an upstairs neighbor --- impolitely referred to as Fat Donna (played by Donna Maldonado) --- but is busted by his best friend, Harold (Kevin Rivera), and his nosy sister, Vicki, before he can complete the act.
Knowing Vicki's gossipy ways, Victor realizes it's only a matter of time before everyone in the neighborhood starts dogging him for trying to get with Fat Donna. So he heads to the local pool with Harold and tries to talk up the prettiest girl he can find, in hopes everybody will forget about the Fat Donna incident. He sets his sights on Judy (Judy Marte), because she's "juicy," but she wants nothing to do with him or any other testosterone-driven male in the area.
Victor eventually gets another crack at Judy, but only after promising to fix her little brother Carlos (Wilfree Vasquez) up with Vicki. Judy eventually succumbs to Victor's advances and agrees to let him be her man, but not because she likes him. As she explains to her friend Melonie (Melonie Diaz), who is being hotly pursued by Harold, Victor will be like bug spray, keeping every other horny, abrasive guy in the neighborhood away from her.
Vargas is written and directed by Peter Sollett, who made a name for himself with the 29-minute short Five Feet High and Rising. The short featured some of the same characters and actors as Vargas, and won awards at Cannes, Sundance, and SXSW. Armed with gifted cinematographer Tim Orr, who also shot David Gordon Green's George Washington and All the Real Girls, Sollett gives viewers that fly-on-the-wall feel ordinarily reserved for documentaries. Vargas never once feels false or hits a sour note, and its actors don't seem at all like they're acting. The R rating is a little baffling, considering the complete lack of sex, but Vargas does offer one of the best screen kisses you're likely to see this year.
I've read some reviews of Vargas that suggest this little film would have been ignored had it focused on white teenagers in Middle America, but a picture like that would likely deserve the cold shoulder. If it was about a white teenager trying to get laid, you can bet the story would have been as predictable as the characters would have been two-dimensional. And somebody probably would have stuck their penis in a pie, too.
The surest bet in Hollywood these days is, hands down, the maddeningly entertaining CG family films made by Pixar Animation Studios. Their track record for churning out instant classics immediately worthy of repeated viewings is indisputable, bested only by their ability to make money hand-over-fist. Show me a kid --- or an adult --- who doesn't like A Bug's Life; Monsters, Inc.; or the Toy Story films, and I'll show you a callous, impassive robot with rocks for brains and a gaping chasm where its heart is supposed to be.
Pixar's latest, Finding Nemo, is their first summer release, but it is in no way any less dazzling than its predecessors, though it's slightly more generic story-wise. Heck, even if you call it generic, Nemo is still Buzz Lightyears better than 99 percent of the G-rated films rolled out over the last decade. And, as an added treat, screenings of Nemo are preceded by Pixar's Bobby McFerrin-scored short Knick Knack of 1989, plus a trailer for Thanksgiving 2004's The Incredibles, which looks a little like Brian Michael Bendis' awe-inspiring comic book, Powers.
Nemo, which takes place mostly underwater, is about the father-son relationship between two clownfish. It begins with a brief prologue depicting a fairly traumatic shark attack (it's just the beginning --- what else would you expect from a children's film that references Jaws, Psycho, and The Shining?). The attack takes the lives of Nemo's mom and 399 soon-to-be-hatched eggs fertilized by his dad, Marlin (Albert Brooks). The story proper begins on the first day of school for the titular Nemo (Alexander Gould), the sole spawn to survive the assault. The now-agoraphobic Marlin is understandably cautious about letting go of his only child for the first time, especially since Nemo has a gimpy fin.
Much to Marlin's dismay, Nemo's teacher takes his class to the reef's drop-off and, while following carefully behind, Marlin is horrified to see Nemo and some friends daring each other to swim over the edge. Words are said, feelings are hurt and, long story short, Nemo gets scooped up by a diver and crammed into a fish tank owned by a Sydney dentist (after a quick dig at Americans --- see, it's not just Dogville).
The rest of the story unfolds in two parts. The suddenly courageous Marlin teams up with a lunatic fish suffering from attention deficit disorder (a drop-dead hysterical Ellen DeGeneres) to track down his boy. Meanwhile, Nemo attempts to escape the tank before he becomes a birthday present for the dentist's fish-killing niece. The tale is very reminiscent of Toy Story, where Buzz and the other toys try to find and rescue Woody, who is about to be quartered by demon child Sid.
Nemo is written and directed by Andrew Stanton, the co-director of A Bug's Life and a scribe on every one of Pixar's feature films (he's also the SoCal voice of current-surfing sea turtle Crush here). Stanton fills this picture with breathtaking color and unbelievably real-looking animation. Even for a Pixar film, Nemo sets a new standard for terrifying highs and lows that are so devastating they'll make you tear up. Nemo creates a very high benchmark for this summer's other films to strive to best, and I don't think any of them will.
Interested in raw, unsanitized movie ramblings from Jon? Visit his site, Planet Sick-Boy (www.sick-boy.com), or listen to him on WBER's Friday Morning Show.