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New Dawn Fades

The Young and the Breathless

Not especially likable, Stevie is characterized by limited intelligence, poor impulse control, and a lifetime of abuse. An old psychological evaluation notes his "failed placements in every group home in southern Illinois." Abandoned by his mother, he was raised by her husband's parents—along with a younger sister. Save for his mentally retarded "fiancée," Tonya, everyone is angry with Stevie about something, especially his aunt (who was herself sexually abused as a child). As Stevie's case drags on through various appeals, James counsels him to cop a plea. Stevie refuses. "Hell, this ain't your life," he pointedly tells his Boswell.

His affect alternating between the doleful and the stricken, James often seems to be wondering what he's doing on this planet of dogs, trailers, and pickup trucks, a place where nearly everyone is on SSI, the most dynamic form of cultural expression is glossolalia, and the Aryan Nation has a monopoly on political thought. He agonizes over interviewing Stevie's family members without telling Stevie and tries to establish some honest basis for their relationship. At one point, James treats Stevie and Tonya to a trip to Chicago. The filmmaker's wife, a social worker who specializes in counseling sex offenders, takes a far less indulgent view toward Stevie, who, not surprisingly, goes to a club and immediately begins self-medicating. "I was the idiot who allowed him to drink and stood by filming as he went out of control," James muses.

Foreigners often comment on the peculiar American combination of superficial friendliness and profound indifference. Stevie epitomizes a related national trait—the belief in the curative powers of publicity. By this logic, the appearance of therapy and the mouthing of appropriate jargon are identical with therapy itself. James feels badly that he deserted his little brother and wonders, not without reason, if their new, movie-based relationship is a form of exploitation. Repeatedly, the miserable-looking filmmaker assures Stevie (or himself) that he'll "be there" for him. With a camera in hand?

Free of all constraints: Wu Qiong and Zhao Tao in Unknown Pleasures
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Free of all constraints: Wu Qiong and Zhao Tao in Unknown Pleasures

Details

Unknown Pleasures
Written and directed by Jia Zhangke
New Yorker
Opens March 26, at Cinema Village

Stevie
Directed by Steve James
Lions Gate
Opens March 28, at Film Forum

Raising Victor Vargas
Written and directed by Peter Sollett
Samuel Goldwyn/Fireworks
March 26, at Alice Tully Hall
March 27, at the Walter Reade
Opens March 28

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Less steeped in documentary realness than Stevie and entirely unambivalent in its attitude toward its characters, Peter Sollet's Raising Victor Vargas is an antidote of sorts. This well-made, cheerful indie—opening "New Directors/New Films" before it goes into commercial release Friday—celebrates Loisaida teenagers as smart and engaging winners.

School is out and romantic intrigue is in. All over the neighborhood, persistent guys are madly scheming to get next to tough, sassy girls. Cute and vain 16-year-old Victor (Victor Rasuk) is pursuing pretty, diffident "Juicy Judy" (Judy Marte). Tender and funny, Raising Victor Vargas is essentially a comedy of manners, complete with incidental Mozart and three simultaneous courtships—not just Victor and Judy but also their younger siblings and best friends. Enjoying her own love affair with the camera: Victor's perpetually exasperated grandma (Altagracia Guzman).


Related Article:
"Making 'Victor Vargas'" by Patricia Thomson

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