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Direct at Your Own Risk

The artisans behind ‘Raising Victor Vargas’ and ‘Better Luck Tomorrow’ boldly explore different facets of teenage life

Culture clashes, over-active male libidos, teen angst—it may sound like the perfect formula for two new recently-released and buzzworthy independent films, but the real creative TNT can be found in the risktaking directors who sat behind the lens for both films.

In Raising Victor Vargas, director-writer Peter Sollet rounded up some thespians, bonded with them for several years and only after doing so did he pen his coming-of-age script about a Latino teen living in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Meanwhile, writer-producer-director Justin Lin maxed out 10 credit cards, drained his life savings and accepted some cash from fallen rap king MC Hammer to fund Better Luck Tomorrow, his sexy little tale about a group of Asian teen brainiacs who moonlight as thieves. Both films have been winning accolades for showcasing teens in gripping stories that not only engage audiences but actually veer far away from conventional filmmaking. Malibu’s Most Wanted they are not.

The winning edge behind Raising Victor Vargas has more to do with Peter Sollet’s common sense than his writing vibrato. In order to create as realistic of a story as he could, Sollet opted to work with some of the young actors he discovered in the short film he made years prior called Five Feet High and Rising, which was his own autobiographical take on life in an Italian-Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. Specifically, a young actor named Victor Rasuk stood out. In between the two projects, Sollet studied the reactions of Rasuk and other teens. He analyzed their lives, their behaviors, got to know exactly how they would respond in certain situations. It was only after this dynamic interplay that he sat down to pen the script for Raising Victor Vargas. But when he was done … he didn’t show the actors one page of it.

“These people endlessly surprised me,” Sollet says of the young actors he worked with, “and they did so in a way that is very valuable in the film. We didn’t really direct from a script, so the foundation of everything was their ideas. We sculpted scenes into what [I had] written from what they learned from the world. You’re really watching the characters’ lives unfold before your eyes.”

Sure, but what if this polished form of improv tanked creatively?

Sollet says he wasn’t worried about that. His main goal was to capture real life, real experience and inject all of it into a story of how one young Latino man (Victor) crashes into the brick wall of his psyche, shattering his false confidence and dissecting his Romeo-esque persuasions. The end result, executed with panache by Sollet, forces him to mature and grow. Does he become a man that can trust and be trusted, and, more importantly, love, or is adolescence his for good? This is the tale of RVV.

“The neighborhood of Victor Vargas is a composite of the people I have come across on the Lower East Side,” Sollet explains. “I had friends like Victor and I drew among those things that happened [to me]. This isn’t really the film where we see what kids are like in an urban environment—what kind of problems they face, where Latino culture is. We see what these kids have in common with the rest of us. It’s not made for the people in that community necessarily, it’s made for everyone; audiences from a broad range of places.”

This is evident in several key plot themes. Victor the protagonist battles peer pressure after bedding his upstairs neighbor, “Fat Donna” and hopes to save face by winning the heart of “Juicy Judy.” Toss in a grumpy old grandmother into the mix whose heavy-handed morals force Victor to rethink playing The Popularity Game, along with some siblings in need of guidance and you’ve got plenty of impetus for reaction here. And then there’s love, of course. Above all, Sollet’s extended creative pregnancy and clever approach in birthing the film has made it one of the most coveted babes to emerge from the Sundance Film Fest’s Screenwriter’s Lab.

It has something in common with Better Luck Tomorrow, Justin Lin’s intense, action-packed big screen debut. Having won raves at Sundance and a handful of other film fests around the world—including last year's International Asian American Film in San Franciscothe mind-bending formula in Lin’s story is the double lives led by film’s dynamic Asian teens. Over-achievers by day, bored- with-it-all by night, this high school “fable” traces the unlikely criminal acrobats of a group of well-off, educated students.

Lin’s script actually began as a short-form thesis script at UCLA but quickly morphed into something bigger. It’s a superb, unapologetic examination of the insecurity and volatility of today’s youth. Perry Shen and Jason Tobin star in the project, a labor of love, which Lin says was worth every agonizing moment getting it made—15 drafts of a script, lack of financial backing, two years of waiting before it went to production.

“I thought, if I am going take 10 credit cards and my life savings to make this film, I [realized] you can only do that once in a lifetime,” Lin says. “So I asked myself what issues would I tackle and it became dealing with issues of teen angst and exploring how [teen violence] happens. The film was inspired by alot of stuff that was happening back then [in the late-’90s].”

While he says it was worth every effort it took to make the film, Lin felt “it would have been worth for me even if nothing was done. I have to say I learned what it means to actually have a film made, and how rare this is.”

As for exploring teen things, Lin expounds upon a generation on a quest.

“The biggest thing facing teens today is time,” he says. “I can go and talk to teens, I would tell them, ‘look, relax and enjoy yourselves. Don’t try to show somebody up. You need to develop and just enjoy things for what they are.’ There is this new mentality out there of not wanting to wait; of wanting to get everything now, now, now. There’s this sense of urgency and I don’t think it’s good … but the more I actually worked with kids, I realize these are not bad kids. They’re just kids who made bad decisions.”

 

Raising Victor Vargas opens at the Nick on Friday. Better Luck Tomorrow is playing at Cinema 9.

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