Young love blossoms on the Lower East Side in Raising Victor Vargas

Young love blossoms on the Lower East Side in Raising Victor Vargas

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The Sundance hit The Spectacular Now has us thinking back on other teen romances.

Raising Victor Vargas (2002)

A decade after it charmed the pants off critics and art-house audiences alike, Peter Sollett’s Raising Victor Vargas hasn’t aged a day. Part of that is due to its almost complete lack of cultural signposts: There are no dead giveaways on the soundtrack, no dated lingo either; a rotary telephone plays a prominent role, but all that reveals is the film is set sometime before cellphones became ubiquitous. In another sense, though, Raising Victor Vargas has always seemed like a movie out of time—an anachronistically wholesome vision of urban romance. Were New York teens ever this wide-eyed, this free of cynicism and guile? Expanding on his earlier short "Five Feet High And Rising," Sollett tracks his camera through the Lower East Side, where a wannabe playboy (Victor Rasuk, the eponymous coming-of-ager) attempts to woo the pretty neighborhood girl (Judy Marte) he meets at the pool. She reluctantly relents, though mainly just to repel the other guys constantly circling her on the street. Meanwhile, two other romances bloom in their periphery, as the kids’ respective BFFs and younger siblings pair off.

Sweet but never schmaltzy, Raising Victor Vargas sidesteps preciousness by flavoring its earnest love story with authentic NYC atmosphere. The all-Latino cast, made up largely of nonprofessionals using their real names onscreen, is uniformly terrific: Besides its wonderfully naturalistic leads, whose characters’ courtship unfolds at a believably gradual pace, the film boasts scene-stealing turns from Fruitvale Station’s Melonie Diaz (launching her career by running with the best-friend role) and Altagracia Guzman (as Victor’s fed-up grandmother, too old-school strict to realize how mostly well-behaved her adolescent charges really are). Spending time with these loose, lively performers feels like eavesdropping, as though Sollet had managed to track down and silently observe the most likable, pure-hearted kids in the borough. Their era-defying innocence may seem a stretch, but there’s nothing false about the film’s depiction of falling in love as a process predicated on tearing back protective layers. (Only when Marte lets her guard down, and Rasuk reveals the vulnerability beneath the braggadocio, do they begin to connect.) Falling for the movie requires a similar emotional disarmament; bring down your defenses and it just might slip past them.

Availability: A DVD, obtainable through Netflix’s disc delivery service, and streaming for free (through questionably legal means) on YouTube.