There's an unvarnished poignancy to the spectacle of a kid from the inner city who is good-looking and knows it, who has practically been hardwired with the peacock moves of seduction, but who may not have a lot going for him apart from that sultry charisma. In Raising Victor Vargas, Victor (Victor Rasuk), a teenager with a dark Brillo pad of hair and lips so ripe they could almost be a parody of adolescent sensuality, struts around in a tank top T-shirt, which he is only too happy to remove. He fancies himself the young Casanova of his sleepy Dominican neighborhood on Manhattan's Lower East Side, but his faith in the jauntiness of his come-on is about all that he has. The moment a girl calls him on it, he's lost.
Early on, Victor meets Judy (Judy Marte), who is cat-eyed and sleek, with the crystalline sexiness of Chloë Sevigny. She's attracted, all right, but she also sees right through him -- the bad macho jokes, the whole please-baby-please! ironic bluster. The movie, which is small-scale and delicate, with close-ups that caress every quiver and pore of the actors' faces, is canny enough to get us rooting for Victor even as it prods us into taking him in through Judy's divided eyes and heart.
The writer-director, Peter Sollett, cast the film with kids from his own neighborhood, who give themselves over to the camera with a spirit of improvised play that morphs into vivid, layered acting. The flow, and the gentle art, of ''Raising Victor Vargas'' is there in the way that Victor's need to grow up begins to dawn on him without ever announcing itself. It comes through in his dark shimmer of vulnerability -- the look of a junior player who has woken up, for the first time in his life, to a pleasure beyond himself.