Spunk

The young are the restless in Vargas and Lilya

In the opening moments of Raising Victor Vargas, the Dominican American teenager of the title looks dead into the camera, licks and purses his lips, and flexes his muscles. Pulling his wife-beater over his unruly 'fro, he cocks his head to the side and makes his pecs dance, then smiles wickedly into the lens. He's tripping on his own beauty, ostensibly posing for the horny girl who's waiting impatiently for him to get into bed, but also—and mainly—for the camera in his own head. And while it's the camera of writer-director Pete Sollett and cinematographer Tim Orr (George Washington) that loves him back and loves him fiercely, again, it's his own fragile narcissism that Victor has to be shaken out of, in order to become not just "the man" he thinks he is, but a man, period.

Victor Vargas picks up a few years after Sollett's exquisite 2000 short Five Feet High & Rising left off. In that film, we follow a day in the life of 12-year-old Victor (Victor Rasuk) as he goes to a neighborhood pool, spots and falls for a local beauty, Amanda (Judy Marte), then spends the rest of the movie trying to woo her. The kids in Five Feet swear profusely, step gingerly into the ring of sexual awareness, and swagger with patented "New York, yo" attitude. But Sollett catches an aching vulnerability beneath all the posturing; the short is both visually lovely and gently subversive in its depiction of black and brown inner-city youth.

The new feature holds on to the same winning qualities (and much of the same cast) as its predecessor, but gives 17-year-old Victor two younger siblings—the deliciously bitchy Vicki (Krystal Rodriguez) and the worshipful Nino (Silvestre Rasuk, Victor's real-life brother) —as well as the scene-stealing grandma (Altagracia Guzman) who's raising the trio by herself. After he's caught screwing Fat Donna (the girl in the opening scene), Victor has to repair his lady's-man rep quickly. Enter Judy (Judy Marte again), the aloof neighborhood goddess whose never-seen boyfriend and ball-breaker attitude keep the wolves at bay—sort of. She and her friend, Melonie, are still subjected to such appetizing come-ons as "Which one of you ladies wants to get fucked up the doody-hole first?" by budding teen Lotharios. When Victor makes his move on her, she automatically shoots him down. The rest of the film spins on fledgling courtships—Victor and Judy's, and two others, each of which is full of ulterior motives, unexpected emotions, and revelations that both humanize and shock the participants.

If that were all the film was about, it'd be a wonderful story about teenagers in love. But Sollett fleshes out the tale by filling the screen with gorgeous, revealing details. The New York that he captures is a fantastic (in every sense of the word) character in its own right, a place where chicken coops exist in the middle of the urban landscape, where crowded sidewalks showcase human beauty of every hue, where bodegas, hip-hop gear and Mozart trilling unexpectedly from a window define the swirling inner-city vibe. Without belaboring the point, Sollett tells us all we need to know about Victor's family's economic struggles as the camera settles in the cramped bedroom the three siblings share: one bed for the two boys and another for the girl, with Victor rigging a clothesline and a sheet to delineate his half of the bed. Victor Vargas has the look and feel of a neo-realist masterpiece, yet captures New York with a burnished authenticity not seen since the glory days of '70s American cinema. (Sorry, Spike.) But it's the authenticity of the characters—and the skill of the largely nonprofessional cast at letting them come alive—that make the movie such a dazzler.

Victor's cocky self-absorption is mediated by his charm and looks, but also by young Rasuk's skill as an actor. Scene by scene, he reveals layer after layer of his character: the look of tenderness on his face as he presents Judy with a gift and steps back to take in her unspoken gratitude; his swaggering approximation of Italian cool as he greets a guest in his bathrobe and then, turning to walk toward the camera, barks, "Don't slam my door," like some mini-Pacino; crying himself to sleep after his disrespect of his grandmother nearly rips his family apart. And his co-stars are just as impressive. Silvestre Rasuk's conveyance of Nino's reflexive adoration for Victor is so sweet it's almost heartbreaking, as demonstrated in a scene in which Victor awakens one morning to find the younger boy's sleeping head resting on his shoulders, arms twined around his chest. ("Get the fuck off me!" snaps Victor, pushing him away.)

Still, it's Judy who anchors the movie. Marte graces her character with an impenetrable armor yet lets the viewer glean a possible history behind it. Her face suggests a girl who has had other women's legacies of gendered mistrust passed on to her, then reinforced by the leering jerks she encounters daily on the streets. Her beauty makes her a magnet for assholios, and she wears it like a burden. When she finally drops the tough faÁade, we glimpse the last remnants of the child inside the young woman. We see an innocence, a hope, that is breathtaking in its purity, and we see the openhearted adult whom, if she's extremely lucky, she might one day become.

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