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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, May 9, 2003

'Raising Victor Vargas' risese above tired conventions

By Carrie Rickey
Knight Ridder Newspapers


Produced by Peter Sollett, Alain de la Mata, Robin O'Hara and Scott Macaulay, written and directed by Sollett, photography by Tim Orr, distributed by Samuel Goldwyn Films and Fireworks Pictures.

Running time: 1 hour, 28 mins.

Parent's guide: R (profanity, discreet sexual references)

During a summer so sultry that the heat rising from the asphalt creates a mirage, Victor Vargas, 16, a self-styled rooster in a muscle shirt, crows of his way with girls. But the small revelation of "Raising Victor Vargas," a tender comedy of uncommon honesty and sweetness, is how the cocky Victor comes to see losing his virginity as a false goal and finding love as the real deal.

For those sick of the tired conventions of "rom-coms" (as Hollywood wags call romantic comedies), "Vargas" is a refreshing cure, frank about healthy teenage curiosity and sexuality in ways that don't make them punchlines to smutty jokes.

Early in the film, set in New York's Lower East Side, Victor (Victor Rasuk) comes on to the sloe-eyed stunner "Juicy Judy" (Judy Marte), and begins to see through the mirage of his own machismo.

Peter Sollett's lovely film is cast with nonprofessionals who improvised their dialogue and who bring an unselfconscious, refreshing sincerity to the story. The feature grew out of Sollett's award-winning short, "Five Feet High and Rising," cast with many of the same performers, now inching toward six feet.

The film opens with Victor, resembling one of those semi-clad pups in a Calvin Klein ad, preening in front of the neighborhood tramp. If sex is a game, then Victor thinks of himself as a varsity player.

Though Victor likes the lust he sees reflected in the eyes of "Fat Donna," as the tramp is called, he is much more drawn to Juicy Judy, the unattainable beauty hit on by all of the neighborhood boys.

For the most part, the movie is about how Victor learns how to see girls not as cuts of meat — i.e., "fat" and "juicy" — but as people craving the same respect he's so hungry for.

It's also how Victor stands his ground before his 5-foot giant of a grandma (Altagracia Guzman), who blames Victor for raising both the hormones and the relative humidity in the apartment. For Grandma, even Victor's chaste courtship of Judy sets an inappropriate example for his younger brother, Nino (Silvestre Rasuk), and sister, Vicki (Krystal Rodriguez).

Without mocking either side in this gentlest of generational wars, "Vargas" respects both Grandma's old-fashioned belief that there shouldn't be sex before marriage and her grandchildrens' belief that there should.

Respect is what distinguishes "Vargas" from most film depictions of teenagers. In the same way that Victor learns to respect his elders, respect girls and respect himself, Sollett respects his characters and his audience.

Though the film is rated R for profanity and sexual candor, I'd much more enthusiastically recommend it for moviegoers 14 and up than I would one of those unaccountably coarse, brain-cell-destroying PG-13 teen comedies. "Raising Victor Vargas" restores brain cells.