-By David Noh

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Swaggering 16-year-old Victor Vargas (Victor Rasuk) fancies himself the ultimate ladies' man in his Lower East Side neighborhood. But life is never easy for this Dominican Casanova: he has been (embarrassingly but rightfully) accused of getting it with poor "Fat Donna" (Donna Maldonado), and his grandmother (Altagracia Guzman) wants to kick him out of the house for "corrupting" his younger goody-two-shoes brother Nino (Silvestre Rasuk) and bitchy, couch potato sister Vicki (Krystal Rodriguez). Worst of all, the most gorgeous girl in the nabe, "Juicy" Judy Rodriguez (Judy Marte), won't give him the time of day.

From its first, Almod~var-inspired shot of Victor preeningly stripping for the hapless Donna and its disastrously public outcome, Peter Sollett's Raising Victor Vargas ensnares you in all the pimpled humor and humiliation of adolescence. Sollett's screenplay has a wonderfully real, raw quality and the cast delivers their bitingly incisive, profane lines with the crack timing of the most inspired improv. An early scene at a public pool--when Victor meets Judy--is a classic, a barrio tapestry teeming with comic energy and local color. "Hey, I'm sorry I called yo' sistah 'Juicy!'" Victor apologizes to his idol's brother, Carlos (Wilfree Vasquez), who himself harbors an unbelievable attraction for Vicki. "Oo, I'd fuck you hard!" another would be lothario hisses at put-upon Judy, who can only roll her eyes and mutter, "If I ever end up with one of these guys, I'll kill myself." Sollett keeps his camera very close to his young actors, but this only seems to make their wonderfully natural performances bloom even more. All the teen brutality and angst is beautifully leavened by tender touches, like a sleeping Nino curled up alongside Victor in their cramped bedroom; a goofy subplot courtship between Judy's feisty, bespectacled friend (Melonie Diaz) and Victor's equally four-eyed buddy (Kevin Rivera), or Carlos breaking into a tearful farewell before an astonished Vicki. The lack of drugs or guns throughout is refreshing and honorable, to say the least, given the milieu.

Victor Rasuk looks as if he'd stepped out of Caravaggio canvas, and acts with a charisma-laden bravado and vulnerability, which prove instantly riveting. "Do you want to be a papi chulo or a papi fejo?" he asks Nino, as he hilariously instructs him to lick his lips in order to attract girls. Later, contrite and terrified over losing his home, he simply breaks your heart. Marte has an intriguing, slant-eyed beauty and a forceful complexity as a wary girl who is perhaps too determined to keep her self-respect. Her burgeoning romance with Victor has all of the humorous combativeness and slow-deepening wonder of Shakespeare's Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. Rodriguez is infuriatingly funny as Vicki, all too eager to blab about Victor's hook-up with the hapless "Fat Donna." Vasquez is deeply touching as her ardent, if somewhat blobby, suitor. As for Guzman, this instantly lovable 74-year-old, making her film debut, invests her character with so much raspy humanity and life experience that, from movie heaven, Rossellini and Satyajit Ray must be smiling down and wishing they'd gotten to work with her as well.

--David Noh

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