Raising Victor Vargas: If John Hughes Came to the Lower East Side of New York

I’m glad we’re living in a time where teen movies are becoming so much more diverse and open to various audiences. Once upon a time, teen movies were basically about upper middle class Caucasian teenagers living through something bad. And while I don’t begrudge John Hughes for tapping in to the zeitgeist, seeing someone like me on screen these days is so refreshing and allows a new generation to see themselves on-screen. Representation matters. And it counts for a lot.

Before the late aughts, there were a select few teen films about minorities. One of the best of their ilk was 2003’s “Raising Victor Vargas.” It’s a movie I’m shocked doesn’t get discussed very much these days, as it’s so much in line with John Hughes’ teen drama comedies.

It’s about coming of age, peer pressure, attempting to conform to clichés about being a man, and the beautiful neighborhood girl who is so much more than her looks. Director Peter Sollett composes such a smart, genuine, and entertaining teen drama about a cocky young man who learns to grow up and look for something more one summer. Set in the middle of the summer in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Victor Vargas is a young man trying to work himself up in his neighborhood as a ladies man. When he’s caught kissing a local girl that many of his friends brand as “Fat Donna,” Victor is anxious to save his rep at the local pool.

The best way he knows how is to try to land a date with the gorgeous neighborhood girl Judy. Or as the neighborhood guys call her: “Juicy Judy,”  Victor is a young man cramped in to an apartment with his family, all of whom garner their own unique and fun sub-plots. Victor’s younger brother Nino idolizes Victor and begins to discover his own sexuality, while their younger sister Vicki garners the interest of Judy’s younger brother Carlos. Carlos is awkward and weird but anxious to get her attention. They’re under the guardianship of their grandmother after the death of their birth mother.

Grandma is a strict and domineering elderly Latinx woman who doesn’t understand her grand kids, and is trying in vain to stop them from growing up. Altagracia Guzman is fantastic as the classic Latinx grandma who spends a lot of her time chasing after her three grandchildren, all the while instilling weird house rules. When she disconnects the phone, Victor argues about potential emergencies, and she screams “Emergencies only happen when I am home!” Sollett and Eva Vives’ screenplay allows for a movie filled with complex characters that we love even when we find them absolutely abhorrent. Guzman is just one in a slew of great performances that include Victor Rasuk (as the titular Victor Vargas), the always great Melonie Diaz as Judy’s overprotective friend, and of course, Judy Marte.

Marte is the classic John Hughes heartthrob in the tradition of Lea Thompson in “Some Kind of Wonderful,” delivering a vulnerable and complex performance. Although she is fawned over, she’s anxious to find someone who sees more than her sex appeal. Through that, she’s closed herself off from everyone, and isolates herself in her apartment building most of the time. Sollett and Vives gives us peek through her experiences as she’s consistently harassed by men outside of her building, and has to angrily push past them everyday whenever entering or exiting her home.

Judy is a woman with a lot to offer, but she’s already locked out anyone remotely interested thanks to her bad experiences with men only interested in her body.  She does wind up being someone so much more than beauty, and she manages to dig deep in to Victor’s persona, breaking his bravado and finding someone who has so much more to offer when all is said and done. As with Hughes’ films, Sollet and Vives’ screenplay can make us laugh and cry at the drop of a dime and it’s so seamless. One wrenching scene has Grandma literally trying to drop the kids off at an orphanage to give them up for adoption, prompting tears from Victor as he lies in bed alone.

When Victor finally convinces Judy to visit for a lunch date, it’s ruined by his grandmother who feels threatened by Judy and angrily announces walking in on Nino as he pleasured himself in the bathroom. This prompts him to scream in terror, begging her to stop as she motions with her hand. It’s such a genuinely funny, awkward moment that only defines the generational gap presented before us.

Seventeen years later, “Raising Victor Vargas” is an absolute summer time teen dramedy that’s still absolutely timeless despite the period it was made. The setting of the lower class New York backdrop and down to Earth conflicts involving growing up, self realization, and being true to yourself are still powerful and richly constructed. I hope we get another movie like “Raising Victor Vargas” again someday soon.