Manhattan transformed

Gritty, hispanic, realistic: a new film challenges the clichés of romantic comedy, says Matthew Sweet
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The Independent Culture

Another week, another romantic comedy set in New York City. Even if you've never paid to see one, you'll have clocked them on the billboards. Maid in Manhattan, Serendipity, Two Weeks Notice, How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days, all with five stars from Marie Claire and a plot that begins with two lovers being horrible to each other, and concludes with strings and a triumphant kiss. Even the poster images are identical: various permutations of evening-dressed Grants, McConaugheys and Bullocks placed back-to-back against the New York skyline, the boy looking helpless, the girl poised to issue some wiseass remark.

Raising Victor Vargas is also a story of boy meets girl in which the cabs are yellow and the action never strays beyond the banks of the Hudson. Glance at the poster, and you'll see a pair of lovers backed by the shapes of some familiar Big Apple landmarks. Take a second look, though, and you'll notice that the pictured couple have been snapped in a less rhetorical pose, that they're wearing chainstore clothes, and that the Empire State Building is sharing the space behind their shoulders with a crowd of rather less iconic structures: crumbling apartment blocks, shabby tenements, grubby water tanks.

The hero of Peter Sollett's film is Victor (played by Victor Rasuk), the unruly teenage son of an average American family (urban, Hispanic, cash-strapped), who falls for Judy (Judy Martel), a girl he meets at the local lido. In the middle of this summer romance, Victor's domestic life is buckling under the pressure of adolescence. His grandmother (Altagracia Guzman), the family's breadwinner, believes that he is getting his younger brother (Silvestre Razuk) into bad habits, some of which involve a locked bathroom door. Her solution is to attempt to sign over responsibility for him to the social services. The movie is a blast of clean, cool air through one of Anglophone cinema's most foetidly formulaic genres. There's no hint in the finished picture of the problems that beset the shoot. But Sollett and his cast were very nearly forced to abandon the picture three-quarters through filming. The fifth-to-last day of their schedule fell on 11 September, 2001.

First things first. Raising Victor Vargas began life as an autobiographical piece set in the Jewish and Italian Brooklyn of Sollett's own teenage years. "But the kids sent to us by the talent agencies were really boring," he confesses. "They were just mimicking the kind of acting that they'd seen on television." To illustrate his point, he launches into an impression of Macaulay Culkin, clapping his face in his hands and pursing his mouth into the shape of a cat's bumhole. "Ooooh! Aaah! All that ridiculous stuff." In an attempt to bypass all the Mrs Worthingtons and Doris Schwartzes, Sollett changed his tack, and, in the process, transformed the nature of the film. He leafleted in the streets around his apartment on the Lower East Side. "Everyone who came in, by virtue of where we were located in the city, was Latino."

So here's another quiet innovation in Raising Victor Vargas. Hispanic families in American films tend to fall into two categories: gun-toting small-time crims, or back-slapping, salt-of-the-earth, beans-and-fajitas types who show the stiff-backed white-bread characters how to samba. The hero of the piece, 19-year-old Victor Rasuk, is confident about the authenticity of the scenes that Sollett and his cast have transferred to the screen. "Everyone in the cast lives that sort of life in the barrio," he explains. "We incorporated a lot of our experiences in the film. What Victor Vargas and Victor Rasuk have in common is a lifestyle - this is how I grew up - and that he's a very vulnerable person, despite his facade."

Rasuk is modest about his abilities. "I didn't know shit about acting," he admits, with his director in earshot. "I thought it was having fun. I thought it was just expressing yourself." He has already added an off-off-Broadway play and a hip-hop film entitled Rock Steady to his CV. His fellow cast members are also going places. Judy Martel has enrolled on a film course. Altagracia Guzman, a former sweatshop seamstress making her acting debut at the age of 74, is aiming for a second career in soap opera.

"Altagracia," attests Sollett, "is a force of nature. She saw that everyone was eating healthily, that they had their sunscreen on, that they weren't misbehaving. She would get very upset with me if I didn't let you know that she would never, never attempt to cut the bad apple from the bunch and deposit one of her kids in some far-off place. Had I gotten hit by a bus she would be sitting here right now as the director of the movie, telling you to go and see it." As it happened, a much greater disaster occurred.

I ask Sollett about the interruption to their schedule. "What angle do you want on it?" he asks. "The story of our day leading up to nine o'clock was normal. I got to the set, exhausted, and went to the apartment with the cinematographer, Tim Orr, and blocked out the shots so that he could start lighting. When I was walking from the set to the church that we used to rehearse in, I saw a low-flying plane. It wasn't alarming, because you can't really imagine what a low-flying plane will do, beyond make a lot of noise. I went to the rehearsal room and Victor and I and everyone else were talking about a scene, and then we heard it. A massive explosion. And someone on the crew said, over the walkie-talkie, that there was a fire over at the World Trade Centre." They were up on the roof of the building to witness the impact of the second plane and the collapse of the towers. "The film suddenly became irrelevant. We were close enough to see everything in more detail than we would have liked. A lot of the crew went down there with shovels and buckets. Our catering truck went down there and gave out the food and water that we had."

It was days later when Sollett realised that their insurance policy would allow them to complete the film. "When you're a director you get a medical examination to make sure that you're physically fit. You have a conversation with somebody to make sure that you're psychologically fit, and you sign the forms. And I read all that paperwork, and laughed about the Act of War clause. Like the Russians were going to come in and attack our shoot. But that was the clause that allowed us to get our movie finished."

Raising Victor Vargas contains no references to these events. Doubtless this is a good thing. Movies which have attempted to make explicit statements about terror and the American war upon it - this week's Tears of the Sun, for example - have only succeeded in expressing the ugliest kind of sanctimony. Sollett's film, with its quiet commitment to the community in which it is set asserts something much more complex and valuable.

"Months go by," he reflects, "and you ask yourself if what you're doing is of any importance in this world, but fortunately for this movie I think the answer's yes, because it's about what we're here for, on our best days. It would have been different if we were making the kind of film where people were unnecessarily awful to each other." As they are, most certainly, in How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days.

'Raising Victor Vargas' (15) is out on Friday

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