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Raising Victor Vargas

Lower East Side story

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The film opens on the luscious lips of 16-year-old Victor Vargas and the suggestion that some Kids-style depravity is about to ensue. Not so -- writer-director Peter Sollet's debut feature follows the desperately tentative romantic travails of half-a-dozen teens over a few steamy days in New York's Lower East Side: These kids can barely meet each other's eyes.

Our would-be Lothario, Victor (Victor Rasuk), lives in a tiny airless tenement flat with his beleaguered Dominican grandmother (Altagracia Guzman) and his two younger teen siblings: his well-behaved brother, Nino (Silvestre Rasuk), and his sullen pudgy sister, Vicki (Krystal Rodriguez). Victor has a repertoire of what he reckons are smooth moves, but his cocksure ways are about as deep -- and as attractive -- as the constant sheen of sweat on his bony chest.

When he decides to court a neighborhood girl, Judy (Judy Marte) -- whose own romantic inexperience is cloaked with an artificial indifference -- he's baffled at his failure. Victor trips, falls, regroups and stumbles some more before discovering that the course of true love runs on honesty, not bullshit. Similarly, he realizes that his stabs at maturity are critical to holding his little ragtag family together.

It sounds terribly corny, but there isn't a moment of syrupy stupidness in this film. Sollett has a fantastic ear for how teen-agers talk (and don't talk; so much painful silence) and an admirable grasp of teen mating rituals. The film is frequently funny, but in an easy everyday way. He doesn't overplay his hand with the high-stakes melodrama we've come to expect from teens-in-the-hood flicks. The incident that finally pushes Granny to the edge is laughably benign -- and yet truly bittersweet. She's not losing her kids to gangs or drugs; they're simply growing up.

The hand-held camera and natural light (probably used more for economic than artistic reasons) lend an easy naturalism and intimacy. The camera remains close to the teens' bodies and faces, revealing every awkward gesture and physical imperfection of these nonprofessional actors. Sollet has an eye too for the small details that occur organically out of poverty, like the apartment's out-of-tune piano or the kitchen sink that is too small to fill a stockpot in.

Raising Victor makes you ashamed you ever wasted time soaking up phony Hollywood teen romances where everybody is pretty and articulate, or films that fetishize poor kids for vicarious entertainment. Other anomalies worth noting: There is no tacked-on pop music soundtrack, nor is there any nudity, sex or violence (it's a shame really that this sweet little film gets a R rating simply for the very natural use of the f-word). In a summer of digitally manipulated explosions, don't miss this gem, a warm, wise snapshot of all-too-real human behavior.

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