Directed by Peter Sollett. USA. 2002.

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Films about the transition from adolescence to adulthood often sink into contrivances as a substitute for genuine character development. Thankfully, Raising Victor Vargas, by Peter Sollett is a different kind of coming-of-age film. It is a romantic comedy about a New York Latino family that shows young people as real human beings who learn from their mistakes, respect tradition, and show affection to those who care about them. The film is based on Sollett's semi-autobiographical 1999 short film, Five Feet High and Rising yet allows the Dominican actors to improvise in a way that is true to their own experience.

Set in a somewhat sanitized-looking version of Manhattan's Lower East Side, 16-year old Victor Vargas (Victor Rasuk) lives with his younger brother Nino (Silvestre Rasuk), his chubby sister Vicky (Krystal Rodriguez) and his old-fashioned grandmother (Altagracia Guzman) who asks the children to "answer me with your eyes''. Victor, concerned that his self-image will take a beating when his friends find out he has been dating an unpopular girl, goes with his friend Harold (Kevin Rivera) to the public swimming pool to try to pick up young women. He walks shirtless with a macho swagger, yet underneath he is insecure. Desperate for approval, Victor makes stumbling attempts to pick up "Juicy Judy" (Judy Marte) but can't get past her defensive distancing. She pretends to have a boyfriend and admits to using Victor as "bug spray" to ward off neighbourhood louts. Victor is forced to ask Judy's younger brother Carlos (Wilfree Vasquez) for a formal introduction in return for a quid pro quo with his sister Vicky.

While other romances form a backdrop (Harold and Judy's friend Melonie, Carlos and Vicky), the plot centres on the halting attempts of Victor and Judy to make an emotional connection. Things get complicated when Nino asks Victor to teach him about sex. Grandma discovers Nino practicing his lessons in the bathroom and blames Victor for Nino's "depravity". In a tragi-comic attempt to relinquish custody, she hauls the children down to Juvenile Court, points at Victor and tells the social worker, "This one is going the wrong way.'' Though I would have liked Raising Victor Vargas to provide a deeper understanding of the characters, their transformation from adolescent posturing to genuine caring seems very real and Rasuk's performance is rare in its ability to show both self-assured bravado and an appealing vulnerability.

Howard Schumann
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