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Raising Victor Vargas

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Though the two films share an uncommonly supple touch with improvised dialogue and laid-back naturalism, writer-director Peter Sollett's enormously winning debut Raising Victor Vargas is the anti-Kids, answering the earlier film's misanthropy with a surpassingly sweet look at urban adolescents. Depending on the viewer's perspective, both could be seen as fantasies: The roving, amoral monsters in Kids share the same city as the sensitive, lovelorn teens in Vargas, yet they seem to come from different planets. But for those who prefer a more generous view of human nature, Sollett's fantasy is easier to indulge, thanks to a sun-touched vision of Lower East Side romance that brims with humor, warmth, and knowing impressions of first love. Expanding on his NYU student film Five Feet High And Rising, the 27-year-old Sollett brought back several members of his gifted nonprofessional cast, whose relaxed and familiar rapport lends the characters a much-needed sense of authenticity. The oldest of three siblings in a tiny third-story walk-up, Victor Rasuk struts through the neighborhood like a wiry peacock, trying to attract girls by flashing them smoldering looks, flexing his lean frame, and licking his lips compulsively. Though everyone can see through his lothario act, Rasuk's dogged persistence lands him "Juicy" Judy Marte, who initially uses him as "bug spray" to keep away other guys, but eventually warms to his advances. Their romance meets a sizable roadblock in Rasuk's grandmother and sole guardian (a scene-stealing Altagracia Guzman), who lords over their apartment and considers him a bad influence on his saintly brother and moody little sister. After one minor misstep, she padlocks the phone; after another, she hauls the entire family down to social services. Sollett balances Rasuk and Marte's relationship with two other pairs of varying age and degrees of intimacy, stitching disparate vignettes into a lovingly detailed and perceptive slice of life. Much like David Gordon Green, the prodigiously talented young director of George Washington and All The Real Girls, Sollett uses loose-limbed naturalism to create an affectionate and idealized portrait of a lower-class community. But what makes Raising Victor Vargas so special, beyond its irresistible charisma, is how Sollett and his cast capture the thrill of first love, when lack of experience leaves both partners more open and emotionally unguarded than they will ever be again. Their tenderness and vulnerability put them a step away from incredible heartbreak, but the film operates on the touching conviction that their good faith will be rewarded.