Aside from Spike Lee's "Brooklyn" and Martin Scorsese's "Little Italy," scant filmmakers have tapped the possibilities of New York as neighborhood microcosm, a tight crucible of a few blocks where you can spend an entire life gladly oblivious to the larger world. Writer/director Peter Sollett's "Raising Victor Vargas" takes the small-world view to its logical extreme. Filmed almost entirely in close and medium shots, and taking place on a single stretch of one blighted block of the Lower East Side, Sollett's minimalism should be claustrophobic. Instead, it serves an intimate, graceful collection of interfamily and teen-romance miniatures, helped immeasurably by a cast of local nonpros.
The film works with the economy of a short story, one in which a single kiss can change a life and is pretty hot to boot. And it avoids the mathematics of 'hood movies which, if taken to their logical extreme, would see the extinction of all black or Latin families by drugs and gang-fighting in one movie season. Dangerous types inhabit the Vargas family's world, but this film isn't an underworld story.
The Vargas' scroungy one-bedroom walk-up on Avenue D is shared by a Dominican grandma (Altagracia Guzman) and her three grandchildren: There's 16-ish Victor (Victor Rasuk), younger Nino (Silvestre Rasuk) and totally bored, preteen couch potato Vicki (Krystal Rodriguez).
It's summer, and Victor sees himself as a player in training. But when he meets the unattainable and saucy Judy (Judy Marte), fuhgeddabouditt.
Unfortunately, Judy sees him as a hormone-ridden nuisance and utilizes him as protection from the local thugs. Meanwhile, Nino falls for Judy's bespectacled friend (Melonie Diaz), while Gramma has old-school conniption fits about her sexed-up kids.
Sollett's camera scheme plays off of his players' improvised dialogue wonderfully, which in turn highlights his finest skills: getting professional performances from his ridiculously at-ease cast.
Marte's Judy is a suspicious colt of girl, her face J.Lo-ish but with deep slanted eyes that form a prematurely cranky "V." Rasuk is endearing and smart in his transformation from panting goat boy to nascent man.
Near film's end, when Sollet finally cuts to a long shot of his lovers set against the cold immensity of Manhattan, the idea of the neighborhood as refuge, known and reassuring, is seductive, no matter how poor or dangerous the local predators. Raising Victor Vargas is more than a terrific film -- it's a kind one.