A small sweet picture that is brightened by its genuine feeling for emotional truth and human nature, “Long Way Home” marks an auspicious writing and directing debut for Peter Sollett. Having won the awards for best short film at both the Sundance and Cinefondation section of the Cannes Film Festival two years ago for “Five Feet High and Rising,” Sollett developed this script through labs at both orgs. On its own very modest terms, this gently observed behavioral piece about Latino teenagers on New York’s Lower East Side is quite winning and could connect strongly with all manner of young audiences if carefully nurtured through a smartly managed process of special screenings and promotion to cultivate a public that won’t necessarily be reached via film festival acclaim and critical support.
Without posturing or self-consciously positioning itself as such, “Long Way Home” is a story of adolescent blossoming that, in its sensibilities and intent, stands as the antithesis of the vast majority of so-called coming-of-age films made in the United States in recent years.
Although it is, inevitably, about sex, status and self-awareness, the film is even more about growth and the discovery of new modes of feeling and self-expression that emerge so strongly in the mid-teen years. It’s also about learning to drop the pose and the requisite tough attitude in favor of being true to your own feelings and those of others.
Set amidst the aging projects in the southeastern corner of Manhattan, pic begins in a fashion that suggests typical teen hijinks to come: When word gets out that preening, bushy-haired Victor Vargas (Victor Rasuk) has a sex thing going on with an unattractive fat girl, he is derided so lustily around the neighborhood that he decides he’s in urgent need of a g.f. upgrade.
Visiting a public swimming pool with his buddy Harold (Kevin Rivera), Victor immediately hits on the lithe, standoffish “Juicy” Judy Ramirez (Judy Marte), and is just as immediately shot down. But a connection is made, Victor works an angle through Judy’s brother and quite confidently starts referring to Judy as his new girl, all while just trying to get Judy to come over for a visit, then for a burger dinner.
Even as very little is happening in an overtly dramatic sense, there’s quite a bit going on for the principal characters.
Victor lives with his grandmother (Altagracia Guzman), slightly younger lookalike brother Nino (Silvestre Rasuk) and chubby sister Vicki (Krystal Rodriguez), and when Victor begins fantasizing that he’s getting too big to remain under grandma’s thumb, the old lady, who hails from the Dominican Republic, asserts herself in no uncertain terms. Goofy, no doubt little educated but made of stern stuff, Granny constantly stresses how she wants them all to be “a good family” (Mom and Dad are out of sight and mind), and she means it; she takes the kids to church, still washes Nino’s hair in the tub and puts a lock on the telephone.
Ever so slowly, Judy decides to give the boisterously good-natured Victor the time of day, and the little bumps that occur along the way result in minor but crucial lessons learned that allow them to break down their defensive barriers and open up to genuine emotional interchange. The tender late scenes between the two incipient lovers carry the rewarding charge of unfamiliar feelings honestly expressed.
Sollett, working from a story he conceived with Eva Vives, wrote a detailed script for the film but never showed it to his street-recruited cast members, whom he guided through a month of improvisational rehearsals before shooting began.
The work shows in the thesps’ engagingly believable dialogue and familial behavior. Rasuk is thoroughly ingratiating, Guzman’s a hoot, and the entire cast seems completely at ease before the cameras, freeing them to effectively act their roles or just be themselves, whichever was the case.
Pic is technically proficient.