Heroes of the Zeroes is Nick Rogers’ daily, alphabetical look back at the 365 best films of 2000 to 2009.
Teen courtship is often giggly, fumbling negotiations over levels of comfort — a repetitious dance of stammered pleas to go further physically and awkward silences broken by nervous laughs.
Set largely during such forgivably graceless moments, 2002’s Raising Victor Vargas isn’t really a romantic comedy. It’s a snappy, vividly acted dramedy about teenagers learning romance in New York’s Dominican-dominated Lower East Side.
Victor Vargas (Victor Rasuk) eagerly seeks to reclaim swagger once his dalliance with a girl dubbed “Fat Donna” gets out thanks to sister Vicki (Krystal Rodriguez, blasting Luis Guzman’s brand of comic sass from the body of a preteen girl).
Victor sets his sights on coveted “Juicy” Judy Gonzalez (Judy Marte), for whom going to the grocer means a gauntlet of leering goons. Having heard all manner of game, Judy’s unfazed when Victor flares his peacock feathers, and he realizes honesty, respect and patience are what will win her.
Writer-director Peter Sollett refreshingly avoids placing Judy, Victor or their friends into lazy traps of pregnancy, betrayal or violence. These are intelligent, thoughtful teenagers whom you’ll fondly remember as struggling through desires and instincts. Trustworthiness can’t be predicted, only tested, and Sollett lets this patiently propel his plot.
There’s also no ceiling on coming-of-age aspects, as Victor’s aged, agitated grandma (Altagracia Guzman) faces the reality of raising three children in a sexualized society. (Rasuk’s real-life brother, Silvestre, plays Victor’s piano-prodigy brother Nino.)
The depth of everyone’s fears, joys and needs is terrific, and Sollett’s compassionate command of their stories is flawlessly tender.