Raising Victor Vargas opens with a shot of its title character standing shirtless before the camera, hitting us with bedroom eyes, licking his lips, making his pecs dance. It’s a performance — an ironic one at that, given that the remainder of the movie is as real as can be. What’s waiting on the other side of the camera? What’s Victor looking at? A fashion photographer? A beautiful girl? A mirror?
It turns out that Victor is putting on his show for Fat Donna, a mountain of a girl living two floors above him whom he’s using for sex. Obviously no self-respecting hunk of 16-year-old Dominican love would ever let the fact that he’s getting it on with the ugliest girl around leak out. But Victor is no genius. He thinks with his heart (and, of course, his groin) rather than his head, and when his best friend Harold calls up to him from the street, he sticks that most dangerous of appendages out the window before he has time to realize that he’s on Donna’s floor.
The gossip spreads through Victor’s Lower East Side neighborhood like wildfire. This is where the first of a dozen inconceivable things happens: Victor isn’t embarrassed. He’s full of bewildering confidence that floats like an oil slick on his surface obscuring the little boy within, and he bounces right back by zeroing in on a beautiful girl named Judy. (During one of his relentless attempts to woo her, he tells her she wouldn’t understand what it’s like to get nervous around somebody; it might just be another angle to get her to give him the time of day, but more likely it’s his truth.) His brain contains an encyclopedia of wisdom about the fairer sex — he explains his lip-licking habit to his brother as a way of attracting women; they always stare at your lips when you’re talking, Victor says, so don’t be having no cracked lips, son (Chap Stick apparently has not yet made its way to the block). It’s not that he imagines himself a ladies man and puts on a front. It’s that it’s not a front to him. In Victor’s reality, he’s the hottest guy in the five boroughs.
The film covers an eventful week or so in his life during which he wins Judy only to discover that she’s playing him — she refers to him as “bug spray” to her best friend, with whom she has a man-hating agreement that both break by the film’s end. Judy eventuallydiscovers that it’s her heart that’s been played, betraying her by letting Victor and his shirtless bravado in. Raising is Victor’s coming-of-age story, but it’s also about the more general mysteries of teenage love, as each of the Vargas children — Victor has a younger brother, Nino, and a younger sister, Vicky — learn about its various flavors for the first time. Victor might talk a good game, but there’s no changing the fact that when we met him he was fucking Fat Donna; there’s no reason he’d do that if he could do better. It’s not until he meets Judy that he’s able to transport his inner life to his outer.
What’s so compelling about Victor is that for all his talk, he’s sweet and tender. Victor and Harold don’t crudely banter back and forth about how they’re going to hit it with everything that moves in the neighborhood, and we see little of the other boys in Victor’s world. A couple of Latino thugs catcalling Judy about double penetration are all Raising needs to prove that Victor is, incredibly, one of the good guys. He cares about what the other neighborhood boys around the way think, but he also seems to genuinely care. He doesn’t press himself physically upon Judy. When she tells him that she’s in charge of the relationship and she doesn’t ever want him coming over — she needs her space — he is nothing but smiles and agreement. How can you resist a boy like that, who feels privileged just to be with you, although he’d never admit he felt that kind of pride?
Raising’s writing credits go to Eva Vives and director Peter Sollett. The film is based on a previous short done by the pair called Five Feet High and Rising; it starred Victor Rasuk and Judy Marte, who reprise their roles here. The characters are so genuine it hurts, and there’s no reason not to believe that Sollett just gave his “actors” a general outline and turned on the camera to capture the results.
Sollett has fleshed out his subplots on his way to expanding Five Feet to a feature-length film, throwing in a minor, parallel love-lust story between Judy’s best friend and Harold, and creating melodramatic conflict between Victor and his devout grandma, who believes that Victor is such a bad influence on his younger brother and sister that she can’t allow him to live with her anymore. Victor pretends he doesn’t care, but the truth is that his emotional well runs deep. Through all the New York noise and the sweat, he remains delicate.
This is one of the sweeter, more pure bits of film you’ll find, with characters living lives untouched by anything so heady as what’s in store for tomorrow.
Opens Friday exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.
Erin Podolsky writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.