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Raising Victor Vargas

(2003) *** 1/2 R
88 min. Samuel Goldwyn. Director: Pete Sollett. Cast: Victor Rasuk, Judy Marte, Sylvestre Rasuk, Krystal Rodriguez, Melonie Diaz.

Beginning with its title character seducing the camera and ending with his humble self-possession, Raising Victor Vargas is truth in advertising. In a story which spans only a few days, writer-director Peter Sollett witnesses the death of a boy and the birth of a man. It may not exactly take a village, but it does take the earnest influences of Victor's family and the girl who catches his eye to raise Victor in this refreshingly honest and unaffected human comedy played by a perfect ensemble cast.

The story begins with 16-year-old Victor--played winningly by Victor Rasuk-- unintentionally revealing to the neighborhood that he has made an appearance in the bedroom of "Fat Donna." Faced with the ignominy of being named "Fat Donna's Man"--a goal Victor's cranky sister Vicki (Krystal Rodriguez) lives to achieve--Victor sets out to reform his image by hooking up with a beautiful girl. At the community pool, Victor spots his mark: Judy Ramirez (Judy Marte). Reluctantly, Judy leads Victor on--while keeping him at arm's length--to fend off the incessant advances of the more aggressive boys in the neighborhood. Of course, this romantic conflict eventually turns into something which neither Victor nor Judy ever expected.

Victor's family further complicates his life. Victor lives in cramped quarters with Vicki and brother Nino (Sylvestre Rasuk). With parents out of the picture, the kids are raised solely by their traditionalist Dominican grandmother (Altagracia Guzman), and her phobia of the children growing into sexuality sends her into daily apoplectic fits. When Victor's advancements with the young ladies begin visibly to affect his siblings (and make Victor a no-show at church), Grandma threatens to throw him out on the street.

All of this is--surprisingly--as warmly funny as it is intimate. Emphasizing closeups and minimizing plot to a narrow slice-of-life window, Sollett takes us all the way in to the beating heart of New York's Lower East Side. The story is partly framed by Victor's power struggle with his Grandma for the rule of the roost, with Grandma insisting, "The only thing you have is me," and Victor countering that she has only her grandchildren. The nature of their eventual uneasy truce nevertheless establishes a "victor"--the one alive with the promise of change and growth.

The romantic side of the story also finds satisfying resolution, with Victor's player side slowly sublimated to his true sensitivity. In moments of bravado, Victor insists, "I'm a private person," and Judy proves to be the same. Their scenes together radiate the longing and tightly coiled excitement of young love. Thankfully, Sollett avoids overt preaching while also celebrating the mature breakthrough of a young man and a young woman who learn to understand each other in their impulses, foibles, and needs.

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