Child’s play

Victor Vargas cuts beneath street-toughs’ facades

Victor Vargas is a self-styled player, a Don Juan of his own mind, who struts around his Lower East Side barrio.

With his transparently slick mannerisms, 16-year-old Victor (Victor Rasuk) looks half the age of poised beauty “Juicy” Judy (Judy Marte), the round-the-block goddess with the withering stare and blase manner.

Victor and Judy are a highly unlikely duo who nevertheless hook up in the moving, quietly charming Raising Victor Vargas. Their motivations are, in the teenage scheme of things, mutually beneficial. Judy needs symbolic protection from the neighborhood hoods and stoop jockeys who block her path and yell propositions her way. And Victor has recently suffered the humiliation of having his detested sister discover his liaison with the neighborhood pariah, “Fat Donna.” Judy and Victor latch onto each other for selfish reasons but soon find a more profound shelter in each other’s company.

Scenes of Judy and Victor’s courtship have the lyricism of a silent film or Morris Engel’s city tale Little Fugitive. Victor asks Judy to close her eyes and then surprises her with a tiny chicken to hold, and spying a quarter on the ground, he treats Judy to her pick of prizes from a row of gumball machines. You can see Judy barely containing a reflex eye roll at the pathetically unhip gestures, though later, she smiles as she places the small prize on her dresser. And slowly — despite the corniness of Victor’s brand of courtship as seen through teenage eyes — you can see Judy’s adult composure melt away to the soft, vulnerable expression of a child charmed in spite of herself.

Raising Victor Vargas’ setting is a claustrophobic ghetto of vacant lots, chicken coops and apartment lobbies barricaded with metal doors and wire mesh. The kids, shirtless or decked out in wifebeaters and baggy shorts, give the impression of low-level hoods. But at every turn, Victor cuts beneath such tough-guy appearances to create a richly detailed portrait of the children who live there.

Victor’s wiseguy posturing and Judy’s cooler-than-thou glance hide a touching innocence. And despite all appearances to the contrary, Raising Victor Vargas is ultimately a film about innocence.

Judy is quick to announce her distrust of men to her girlfriend Melonie (Melonie Diaz) and both have an informal pact not to get involved with boys. Like Victor, Judy has no father of her own in sight. Judy’s world-weary cool is as much a protective veneer to keep the neighborhood wolves at bay as a defense against all the world’s cruelties. And Victor’s playboy demeanor seems his own coping strategy. Victor’s father, he tells his brother, was a player himself — beloved by the ladies, though he’s absent now.

Victor, his younger brother and half- sister are all being raised by their tiny, scrappy Grandma (Altagracia Guzman), an adorable gray-haired gnome with a thick Dominican accent and a steely code of values. Whether hoisting an enormous stew pot onto the stove or hustling the children to church, Grandma wears the physical and psychological burden of caring for these three children in every gesture.

Grandma is devoutly religious in the manner of people whose time on earth has been so exhausting and disappointing they can only pine for the deliverance of heaven, and she seems mystified by the generational and cultural gap that separates the children and herself. When she discovers Nino (Silvestre Rasuk) masturbating, she blames Victor and visibly shakes the three children to the core when she hauls him down to social services and begs the officials to take him off her hands.

As a heartbroken Victor sits in an institutional chair, Nino and Vicki (Krystal Rodriquez) gingerly place their hands on his shoulders, and the true fragility of this beleaguered family emerges of three abandoned children threatened with abandonment once again. Few films capture how hostile and enormous the world can be for children and the defenses they create to cope, but this easygoing, lovely film does, to great, tender effect.