East Side story

Film - A touching story about first love reminds Philip Kerr of his own lost innocence

I hate "coming of age" movies. Mostly, I suspect, this is because it is almost 30 years since I came of age myself. Whenever I see some undeserving young punk making whoopee with a bewitching nymphet of jail-bait age, an unhappy war widow, or the woman who gives him French lessons, I always get that Shropshire Lad feeling about happy highways where I went and cannot come again. Not that my own years of sexually charged adolescence were exactly Summer of '42 or The Graduate. Where were these women during my own adolescence when the merest glimpse of nipple or knickers could bring on an erection as hard and enduring as a medieval flying buttress? Probably they felt the heat coming off my eyeballs and, wisely, kept their distance. Which is how I first started going to the cinema on my own. I might have been too young to have sex but at least I could watch the celluloid simulacrum of someone else having it. Or something vaguely approximate to it. Seeing a smutty film was never easy in Edinburgh during the 1960s. As the old joke goes, sex in Edinburgh is how you carry coal around.

There used to be a cinema on Princes Street called the Jacey Film Theatre which was the only place in Edinburgh that regularly showed what passed for sex films in those days. A marvellously seedy place, the Jacey was where I caught my first glimpse of female pubic hair, in a movie called Swedish Love Play. And I do mean caught. This was like seeing an osprey, for God's sake: one blink and you'd have missed it. I had to wait a while to see a film with sex in it that was any good as a movie, however, and I still remember the powerful effect that Ken Russell's Women in Love had on my 13-year-old loins.

I'm droning on about this because Victor, the 16-year-old hero of Raising Victor Vargas, is a skinny, olive-skinned, six-packed, horny youth with a Jimmy Hendrix mop on his head who reminded me of myself. All Victor wants to do is get laid. But in truth the film isn't about sex so much as first love which, if I'm honest, was a better feeling than first sex. At least it was for me.

Peter Sollett's first full-length feature is set on Manhattan's Lower East Side, in what used to be called Hell's Kitchen. It's like West Side Story (which really ought to have been called East Side Story) but without the Jets since everyone in this movie would qualify only for the Sharks. In short, we are among New York's Hispanic population, and if the girls aren't running down the streets, waving their skirts and trilling "Everything free in America", it's because it's too darn hot. Besides, these women know that the permanent removal of female facial hair costs a lot of money in New York City.

Nor are Victor and his smiling amigos singing "Could be", since they've already worked out that most likely it couldn't. The plain fact of the matter is that Victor's immediate prospects are bleak. Inarticulate, shiftless, poorly educated, unemployed, penniless, Victor lives with his brother and sister in a one-bedroom apartment owned by his grandmother. It's not explained where his parents are but five will get you ten that they're both taking a long vacation on Riker's Island. Grandmother is finding her grandchildren a handful, especially their burgeoning sexuality, and worries that Victor is a bad influence on his younger siblings. He's not, but she's a Roman Catholic and too stupid to see that Victor's really a rather decent sort of boy. Having fallen for Judy, the prettiest girl on the block, he resolves to make himself worthy of her. Judy isn't Maria, as played by Natalie Wood, so much as Jennifer Lopez with a budget-sized ego, and a smaller pair of jeans, and that's worth a bath and a clean shirt in anyone's neighbourhood.

This touching little film, much of it improvised by non-professional actors, makes a very pleasant change from the cynical crop of recent youth-oriented movies I've been obliged to sit through. If the film has a fault, it's that there's too much improvisation and maybe not enough scripted storyline. But there's still much to admire and the two leads, Victor Rasuk and Judy Marte, turn in finely nuanced performances. Made for just $800,000, Raising Victor Vargas was the official selection at several festivals and even won the Grand Prix at Deauville.

The film is enormously intimate without being in any way sexual; I'd probably have hated this film when I was Victor's age. Which, as I hope you will have gathered, is high praise for it now.

Raising Victor Vargas (15) is on general release

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2003 issue of the New Statesman, Nepotism: is it back?