Raising A Sensitive Man

When victor Vargas catches his sister, Vicky, gossiping on the phone about his affair with the unpopular "Fat Donna," he tosses the phone--an old rotary-dial model--out the window. It doesn't deter Vicky, who continues maligning her older brother on a cell phone. But it infuriates their grandmother and guardian, who finds the shattered phone on the ground outside. After taping it back together, she padlocks it so Victor, Vicky and their little brother, Nino, cannot use it without her permission. For the restless Latino teenagers in "Raising Victor Vargas," that creates a temporary obstacle to making connections, but by no means a final one.

To restore his reputation in their neighborhood on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, 16-year-old Victor (the appealing Victor Rasuk) sets out to woo "Juicy Judy" Ramirez (Judy Marte). At first she coldly rebuffs his macho advances. But after Victor enlists Judy's brother, Carlos, to plead his case (in exchange for introducing him to Vicky), she gradually softens up. Like all the young characters in this charming, understated film, Judy is hungry for emotional contact. Beneath the swagger, she is vulnerable and immature; stuffed Winnie-the-Pooh characters still decorate her dresser.

But Victor's most complicated relationship is with his testy, overburdened grandmother (Altagracia Guzman), who considers him a good-for-nothing playboy like his grandfather. She dotes on the sweet-natured Nino (Silvestre Rasuk, Victor's real-life, look-alike brother), who plays Bach concertos on the piano and allows her to wash his hair in the tub. So when she discovers Nino doing "terrible things" to himself (i.e., masturbating) in the bathroom, and Vicky spending time alone with Carlos, she blames Victor for being a bad influence.

In the most hilariously touching scene, she shuffles all three kids off to Social Services and demands that the agency do something about her older grandson. Though he hasn't done drugs or committed a crime, she wants him out of the house, she says. But when the social worker points out the alternative--splitting up the family, foster care--she grudgingly acknowledges that the family belongs together. With tears in his eyes, Victor apologizes and begs not to be turned out. "The only thing you've got is me," Grandma reminds him, and the inverse is just as true.

What keeps this realization from becoming maudlin is the completely unaffected performances of the actors. To cast his first feature film, director Peter Sollett held open auditions on the Lower East Side. During filming, he used only a loose script and encouraged the actors to improvise; in one ad-libbed scene, Victor coaches Nino to prepare for courting girls by licking his lips.

It also helps the film's air of authenticity that the characters undergo only the subtlest of transformations. Victor complies with his grandmother's request to go to church, and she listens when he urges her to stop babying Nino. Judy comes over for a tense, brutally revealing dinner with Victor's family. The ending is not exactly happy, but it is upbeat; like most families, the one raising Victor Vargas seems destined to muddle through. Grandma heeds Victor's request to unlock the phone. And when Vicky gets up to call Carlos, her grandmother doesn't try to break the connection.