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By Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat
Raising Victor Vargas
Directed by James Sollett
Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment 08/03 DVD/VHS Feature Film
R - strong language
Writer-director James Sollett has created a wonderful coming-of-age drama set in a poor neighborhood in New York City's Lower East Side. The characters are so well-drawn and engaging that the film at times feels like a documentary. It has some of the same enchantments as George Washington and Our Song. Once you enter this story, everything else fades away, and you find yourself empathizing with the characters as they seesaw between the extremes of adolescent bravado and the fearfulness of vulnerable souls who know they are in over-their-heads. The mysterious world of sex will do that to you, along with the usual panting and shortness of breath accompanying a close encounter with parted lips and shimmering flesh.
Sixteen-year old Victor Vargas (Victor Rasuk) sees himself as a major player with the ladies in his neighborhood. After he is seen at the window of the bedroom of "Fat Donna," his sassy younger sister, Vicki (Krystal Rodriguez), spreads the word far and wide that her brother has tried to make it with a woman no one else wants. Trying desperately to cover up this mistake, Victor approaches "Juicy" Judy Rodriguez (Judy Marte), who has reputation for being an ice queen. She, of course, rejects him.
Victor the Dominican lothario heads home where his guardian grandmother (Altagracia Guzman) rules the apartment with a rigid set of rules and regulations. She has little patience for his adolescent energy. Her idea of a civilized evening is listening to Nino (Silvestre Rasuk), the youngest member of the family, play the piano. He is her obvious favorite since Vicki spends most of her time sitting on the couch watching television.
All hell breaks loose when grandmother discovers Nino masturbating in the bathroom. She blames Victor for corrupting his younger brother. She is also upset that he has introduced Vicki to Judy's brother Carlos (Wilfree Vasquez). Grandmother decides Victor can't live with them anymore. Child welfare informs her that she can't just give up the boy and she takes him home, but by then he is deeply hurt. Back in the bedroom he shares with his brother and sister, Victor cries quietly behind the sheet he's strung across the room as a privacy barrier. Grandma later takes the three teenagers to the Catholic church in the neighborhood and has them each light a candle for their family.
Victor still wants to win Judy's affection. Unbeknownst to him, his buddy (Kevin Rivera) has been seeing her best friend (Melonie Diaz); they go to bed after both of them realize that they are attracted to each other. Victor gets Carlos to set up a meeting between him and his sister. Judy finally agrees to date him as a way of keeping the other machismo guys in the neighborhood off her back.
In one of the many touching moments in the film, Victor takes Judy to a favorite place of his. She still is wary of trusting him and at first refuses to close her eyes. But instead of kissing her, he puts a baby chick in her hands in a magical moment of tender sharing. Meanwhile, Carlos has his hands full with Vicki who dominates him completely. At one point, he breaks down and cries in frustration after she tells him she needs more space. And so it goes in this inimitable barrio saga of love and loss, the clashing of the generations and the renewal of a family in trouble.
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by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat
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