'Raising Victor Vargas' NPR's Neda Ulaby reviews the DVD release of the independent film Raising Victor Vargas. She says the touching portrayal of Upper East Side teens was largely missed by theater-goers in 2003, but home theater viewers will apppreciate the film's slice-of-life realism and unabashed romance.

'Raising Victor Vargas'

Sixteen-year-old Victor Vargas (Victor Rasuk) is a lean Romeo with a mop of wild black hair and a habit of licking his chops whenever a pretty girl drifts through his line of sight. Victor belongs to the latest wave of Latino immigrants to New York City, and he splits his time between a cramped tenement apartment ruled by his intractable Dominican grandmother (Atlagracia Guzman) and the streets of Manhattan's Lower East Side.

Victor swaggers like toughs twice his age, but his reputation as a player isn't evolving quite as smoothly as he would prefer -- he's sparkly and irresistible, and he can't help still being a kid. As the film opens, he's posing and flexing with goofy glee for "Fat Donna," an appreciative neighborhood girl lolling in bed. But their encounter is not worth consummating for Victor when one of his friends shouts up for him from the street.

Victor (Victor Rasuk) attempts a poolside pickup of Judy (Judy Marte). Samuel Goldwyn Films hide caption

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Samuel Goldwyn Films

Judy (Judy Marte) softens up after getting a present from Victor -- a baby chicken. Samuel Goldwyn Films hide caption

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Samuel Goldwyn Films

Raising Victor Vargas tracks how Victor's conception of manhood slowly changes when he falls for a beautiful, wary girl named Judy (Judy Marte) -- "Juicy Judy," as she's called by the boys. Judy is hardened to cocksure junior machos like Victor, and she's secretly heartbroken by her parent's divorce.

In their courtship -- proceeding in fits, hisses and starts -- the two both learn to become vulnerable. When Raising Victor Vargas blasted into theaters in January 2003, it melted the hearts of cold film critics wearied of glitzy Oscar bait.

Said critics were almost uniformly bewitched by the movie's sweet yet unsentimental glimpse into Victor's world and its confident, intimate portrayal of his family and friends. In particular, the film garnered praise for its gentle authenticity and the clear naturalism of the performers. But audiences didn’t flock to Raising Victor Vargas. With the release of a new special edition DVD, now is the time to catch up.

Judy is introduced to Victor's family at his humble Upper East Side tenement apartment. Samuel Goldwyn Films hide caption

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Samuel Goldwyn Films

What’s Included:

An advantage of the Raising Victor Vargas special-edition DVD is its detailed exploration of the director's methodology. Peter Sollett originally wanted to make a movie about his own Brooklyn boyhood in a neighborhood of Italian and Jewish teenagers --but as he started assembling his project, Sollett became intrigued with developing a story about the largely Puerto Rican and Dominican kids who comprised many of his neighbors in lower Manhattan during the late 1990s. Sollett worked with the actors over a period of years -- hence their grace before his lens.

That backstage story is told on a somewhat chaotic commentary track that includes at least four of the actors, Sollett and his casting director/co-writer Eva Vives. It might have worked better had the participants been divided into two commentaries, rather than subjecting viewers to a roomful of often unidentifiable voices veering into merciless detail about, for example, how hot it was on set.

Best among the extras is the original short feature filmed two years prior to Raising Victor Vargas that led to its making. Five Feet Tall and Rising stars the same young actors -- Rasuk and Marte -- but they’re even younger... and in Rasuk's case, considerably shorter. In Five Feet Tall and Rising, the pair have yet to blossom into the polished performers of Raising Victor Vargas, but their charm is abundant -- and it seems evident that Marte, at least, never suffered through an awkward age.