Lower East Side Story

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Ohe cult of the twentysomething indie filmmaker began in 1989, when Stephen Soderbergh won the top prize at Cannes for sex, lies, and videotape. Since then, a number of worthy successors — including Darren Aronofsky, the Andersons (Wes and P.T.), Todd Haynes and Kimberly Peirce — have each carried the torch until the next upstart came along.
    The newest darling du jour is twenty-seven-year-old Peter Sollett, who deservedly inherited the mantle with his first film, the Sundance-acclaimed Raising Victor Vargas. Based on Sollett’s award-winning 2000 short Five Feet High and Rising, the film chronicles one fifteen-year-old kid’s quest to score the prettiest girl on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Shot on location with a nonprofessional Latino cast (including leads Victor Rasuk and Judy Marte), the film is tender, but not soft; realistic, but not self-consciously gritty. In this interview, Sollett talked about the formula for a good coming-of-age film and why he can love Julien Donkey-Boy and Saturday Night Fever with equal measure. &#151 Matthew Ross

Did you enjoy Sundance?
Yeah, I saw Salma Hayek. She’s really sexy. She walked into this party and screamed “Peter!” For a moment, it was like this fantasy I’ve had, at night, in bed. Then I realized she was talking to Peter Rice, the president of Fox Searchlight, and all my dreams came crashing down.

The film seems like an anachronism, and I mean that in a good way. It evokes a more innocent time: the courtship rituals, the grandmother who believes masturbation is a sin.
My goal was to make the film seem to take place anywhere. In doing that, it seemed to take place at any time too. The kind of things that were distinctly right now — like TV shows or news headlines — weren’t the sort of things I wanted to explore, really. I just wanted to stay with the kids and tell their stories.

Marte (“Juicy” Judy) and Rasuk (Victor Vargas) with director Sollett

As for the Lower East Side setting, I think moviegoers have been conditioned to expect Larry Clark-style sex ‘n’ drugs mayhem, authentic as that may be or not. You don’t expect a sweet love story.
Our film is a reaction to the cast. The people you see in Larry Clark’s films are in the minority. I think that stuff should be explored, but there’s another side of that coming-of-age experience that hasn’t been filmed, I don’t think, up until now. It’s certainly the experience that’s closest to my real life cast and myself. Why make an exercise in provocation if that’s not our own experiences? If that doesn’t include gunplay, why include the gunplay?

How much of the film was improvised by the cast?
The cast didn’t have a script. None of the story events were improvised, but a large percentage of the dialogue was. The words aren’t that important to me, actually. It’s more about the events in the film, the obstacles and how each character tries to overcome them.

How did the cast’s approach to dating and sex differ from what you had scripted?
Stuff like Victor giving Nino, his little brother, lessons in seduction. All Victor knew going into that scene was that he’d have to tell Nino how to capture a girl’s attention. In the script, I had something about his walk, or something like that. But Victor said, “Man, you gotta lick your lips. Girls don’t want to kiss you if you have chappy-ass lips.” He started doing that before that scene, and worked it in.

Did you make Victor in response to the current crop of teen movies: the American Pies?
No. I’m completely disinterested in those. The coming-of-age films I like were made thirty or forty years ago — or more, in some cases. Now, the coming-of-age genre is suffused with this adolescent fantasy and glamour that I don’t understand at all.

Victor’s a horndog, but a dimensional horndog.
It wasn’t my intention to make him an animal, but it’s not a reaction to what you see in the movies. Our point of reference isn’t the multiplex, it’s our shared experiences. Not that that’s inherently brilliant. I just don’t think most movies should be a reaction to other movies. Unfortunately, most are.

Would you have made the same film if you were thirty-six?
Well, it didn’t hurt that, being twenty-six, I wasn’t blocking out those feelings from ten years ago: what your needs were, how you tried to get them met. And it helped me listen to the cast. If you listen, they have an awful lot to say; they just don’t say it like an adult would say it. But, yeah, I probably would have made the same film had I been older.

Your favorite coming-of-age films?
I like The 400 Blows, Saturday Night Fever, Cassavettes’ Shadows. The like that they’re universally themed movies in specific settings. The 400 Blows could have taken pace in Bensonhurst, and Saturday Night Fever could have taken place in Paris. People dance and have issues with their parents and their peer groups everywhere.

I caught Saturday Night Fever on cable a few weeks ago. I think it was the first time I’d seen it all the way through. It’s become sort of a cultural joke, but it’s actually a great story.
It’s a brilliant film. It’s gotten a bad rap because of what disco culture had to offer at the time. But I think it’s the least of what the film has to offer. I think there’s tons of character involved. It should be in the coming-of-age hall of fame.

Sollett with the cast

What recent films are exploring adolescence well?
Harmony Korine’s films are doing a good job. Both Gummo and Julien Donkey-Boy are completely different takes on it, but they’re both brilliantly affective, beautiful movies. What else is there? I can’t think of anything.

The greatest misconception about coming-of-age films, I think, is that once you’re past a certain age, they become irrelevant to your present life, and you can only appreciate them for nostalgia value.
All the films I like deal with romance and sexuality. I think, in that way, the coming-of-age genre continues to give, because the themes in them don’t end when you turn eighteen or nineteen. The gap between who we are and who we think we are never goes away. The desire to be liked, the desire to find someone who has a common sensibility — that’s life, all the way through. That said, exploring those themes irresponsibly worsens the situation. It’s a slippery slope.

What coming-of-age films do you think are irresponsible?

What did Larry Clark do after Kids? Bully. I went to see Bully, and I walked out. I thought it was reckless in its portrayal of the kids. Nobody is that . . . I mean, surely there are emotionless wrongdoers in the world, but to put together an ensemble cast of characters who are walking through a film hurting and fucking each other . . .

Well, his films are sort of engineered to titillate.
Sure, they can be titillating. But, unfortunately, I think that’s destructive. It’s very easy to do. You can put the gun in the drawer in the first act and pull it out in the third act and you get the job done. But do you need it? I don’t. 

Interview by Michael Martin. Sundance reporting by Matthew Ross.

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