Austen Powers

Sense and sensibility: Victor Rasuk and Judy Marte in 'Raising Victor Vargas'
Samuel Goldwyn Films

Everything about Raising Victor Vargas is small: its wiry bantam of a 16-year-old hero, its arc of attraction curving into affection, its humble humor and ambitions, and, no doubt, its box office. In this season of invading superheroes, I'm feeling a cantankerous need to point out the rewards of small--which is not the same as simple. (The overrated latter seems more a handmaiden of the imperialistic gargantuan these days.) The rewards of small can be: raw intimacy, spicy detail, caramel richness, unexpected views, and recognition across the usual divisions. Raising Victor Vargas is a heart-touch--a light one, but no less pressing for that.

Director Peter Sollett's story (written with collaborator Eva Vives) is schooled in Jane Austen, or maybe Shakespeare: Three goofily intertwined romances smash up against a family conflict. Wannabe Lower East Side Lothario Victor (Victor Rasuk) seeks a four-star honey for prestigious sexing. He sets his sights on "Juicy Judy" (Judy Marte) despite the doubting disses of his pal Harold (Kevin Rivera) and sister Vicki (Krystal Rodriguez). Startling everyone, including Victor himself, Judy says that he can be her man--then snarls, "Don't fuck with me" and stalks off. As Judy confesses to her buddy Melonie (Melonie Diaz), she needs a "boyfriend" to ward off other, more threatening neighborhood seducers. "Guys are dogs," Judy assures her less bodacious friend.

Meanwhile Melonie has secretly hooked up with Harold, and bitter Vicki is being hounded by Judy's lovestruck brother Carlos (Wilfree Vasquez). Then there's Victor's other younger sibling, the sainted Nino (Silvestre Rasuk), who lately has been loitering in the bathroom. The only adult caught in this steaming hormonal stew is Grandma (Altagracia Guzman), guardian of Victor, Vicki, and Nino. Soon enough, Grandma is finding lipstick smudges on glasses--and worse. Frightened and angry, she hauls her eldest down to social services, hoping to dump him. "Has he committed any crimes?" asks the social worker skeptically.

An exceptional story? Hardly. But neither is it pretentious. And something complicated happens within the frame that's a pure pleasure to watch--some magic sparked collectively by the actors, the director, and cinematographer Tim Orr. The scene in which Melonie and Harold beguile each other is a marvel of negotiated vulnerability, filmed so close up that I, too, felt both entranced and uneasy. Rivera makes Harold a creature of pushy affability; the viewer comes to believe in him as Melonie does, moment by taut moment--a progression measured in the increasing fullness of Diaz's lips.

Judy, a hatchet-faced beauty, also undergoes some softening, though Marte and Sollett keep the process nearly invisible, a matter of subtly thickening hair and a more relaxed posture. It's not surprising that all the females here are initially cynical and wary (and the males eager)--but it is novel the way the movie backs up its women while not stomping on the men. Sollett reveals how the inner-city player code that taunts Judy also haunts Victor, and does it without letting his flailing hero off the hook (and without forgetting the comedy, either--Raising Victor Vargas can be as laughably frank as Y Tu Mamá También, if not as bawdy). The betrayal at the film's start is only resolved in the finale's open-endedness. Yes, the ladies finally risk their hearts--because the gentlemen have shown that theirs can be trusted.

In the same way, Sollett ensnares the viewer by getting the details right--the details of teen romance, sure, but, more important, the details of these teens in this locale: bilingual kids in two-bedroom apartments with no air conditioning on Manhattan's Lower East Side, lorded over by fractiously Catholic old ladies from the Dominican Republic. (Guzman acts cranky superbly.) Again, the movie discovers comedy and wonder in authenticity: I never would've expected chicken shacks, let alone chickens, in Manhattan (and, of course, this Latin enclave is already disappearing).

Still, I wouldn't want to give the impression that Raising Victor Vargas is a project without artifice. The publicity around the film has concentrated on the fact that Sollett found his amateur actors in open casting calls: So many of the best ones came from the Lower East Side that Sollett remade a semi-autobiographical, Brooklyn-based film into one that reflects his actors' lives (and names). Sollett has also emphasized that much of the movie came from improvisations--that his actors were "not pulling faces on cue," but acting "as they would in real life." Sollett's words do quite a disservice to this ensemble, whose members were, after all, playing a game of pretend under lights, just as every actor (and viewer) must do. That they uncovered authenticity is a testimony to the talent and imagination of kids not content just to be "keepin' it real."

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