Is there a better time in life than summer when you’re a kid? School’s out and you’re too young to have to worry about working, so it’s like an endless season of leisure and pleasure ahead of you. You can wake up at noon, then maybe you go out for a walk, you hang out with your buddies, you enjoy the weather, you might go to the public pool, have some burgers, get worked up over girls…

This is the life of Victor Vargas (Victor Rasuk), a 17 year old Dominican boy who lives in a small Lower East Side apartment with his younger brother (Silvestre Rasuk) and sister (Krystal Rodriguez) and their hilariously no-nonsense grandmother (Altragracia Guzman). His friend Harold (Kevin Rivera) and him have the hots for “juicy” Judy (Judy Marte) and her cute friend with the Julia Roberts smile (Melonie Diaz), even though they’re full of attitude like they can’t be bothered… And that’s about it as far as “plot” goes. This is a film with unforced storytelling, it just naturally flows with the characters as various little romances bloom and the family tries to get along.

It’s sweet and funny and sexy, not unlike last year’s horny young men flick Y Tu Mama Tambien, but set in the same kind of hot New York summer as Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Writer-director Peter Sollett never strains for effect, all he does is look warmly upon these characters, all of which feel real and complex and endearing. Sollett gets wonderfully natural performances from a cast of non-professionals, and cinematographer Tim Orr immerses us further into this world by making the heat and sunlight and sweat almost palpable.

How refreshing to see a movie about urban kids that don’t use drugs or guns, a movie with a lot of heart and soul and a little sex, but shown in a positive, non-exploitative light. Unlike that pervert Larry Clark, Sollett doesn’t get off on making kids suffer and perform crass sex scenes. He shows us kids that, while not perfect, are full of love and hope. “Raising Victor Vargas” is one of the most joyful, heart-warming films of the year.