SXSW Review: “Flamin’ Hot”

Even the most mundane projects can have interesting stories behind them. And even the most interesting stories can make for the blandest movies. Eva Longoria’s directorial debut Flamin’ Hot draws from the memoirs of Richard Montañez, the uneducated Mexican American janitor who worked his way through the ranks of Frito Lay to become an executive, namely by taking the initiative to pitch a new product at a time when the company was financially struggling: Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, made using authentic spices to appeal to the Latino market.

Flamin’ Hot opens with an older, clearly—based on the cut of his suit and the fine restaurant he’s dining in—successful Richard (Jesse Garcia) reflecting back on how he got to where he is today. The film then jumps back in time, whizzing through Richard’s childhood. Bullied in school by the white kids who teased him for his burrito lunches, only to hustle them for pocket change after giving them a taste of just how good they are; early on, it’s evident that Richard is the sort of person who takes initiative. We also see him find a kindred spirit in Judy, who becomes the love of his life (played by Annie Gonzalez), and—when he is accused of being a criminal by the rest of society—he becomes just that. Eventually, to help create a stable present and future for his wife and their two sons, Richard goes straight, applying for and attaining a job at Frito Lay as a janitor. He quickly ingratiates himself with the machinist who’s been on the factory floor the longest (Clarence Baker), who takes him under his wing and shows him the ropes off the clock. But both the recession that hit the country in the mid-80s and the disdain of the white higher-ups (such as the manger of the plant Richard works at, played by Matt Walsh) who demand that he stay in his lane prevent him from moving up, even after years of service.

Brice Gonzalez, Annie Gonzalez, Jesse Garcia and Hunter Jones in FLAMIN’ HOT. | Credit: EMILY ARAGONES/COURTESY SEARCHLIGHT)

Despite all this opposition, when Richard gets an idea, he pursues it doggedly, that determination manifesting itself through Garcia’s earnest screen presence. When he gets inspired to try to make a new chip flavor that will appeal to his people who want more flavors in their food, the fiercely supportive Judy and the rest of his family step up to help him, both in perfecting the actual product, and in getting acquainted with the business side of things so he can bring it to the company’s CEO (Roger Encino, played by Tony Shalhoub). It’s worth noting, however, that as much as the real life Richard asserts the truth of this story, a 2021 report in the Los Angeles Times revealed that according to an internal investigation at Frito Lay, the company credits him for his insights into Hispanic culture, but not the actual invention of the flavor. Like a lot of biopics, it’s up to the viewer to discern when and where the truth has been stretched to fit the narrative.

Wrenches are thrown into Richard’s plans all along the way, like the manipulation steeped in racism of the rollout of Richard’s product to, but no matter how poorly he is treated, no matter what names he is called, Richard perseveres. Flamin’ Hot is an uplifting biopic, one that proudly wears its Latinx heritage present both behind and in front of the camera on its sleeve, but the majority of those inspiring moments feel engineered to pull a specific emotional response, as opposed to emerging organically from the screenplay. No biopic trope is left unturned, every predictable storytelling beat is hit. The direction is largely uninspired, although there are some neat flourishes here and there, when Richard begins recounting a story differently, only to backtrack. The relationship between Richard and Judy is lovingly portrayed, but other relationships in the film aren’t as fleshed out, like the snapshots we get of Richard and his strained relationship with his father. One thing that is nice about Flamin’ Hot is the way it positively centers so many different groups of Latinx people in the story, whether they are blue collar workers like Richard or moving goods on the street. The story of a person working their way up from the bottom is one that will resonate with a lot of people, particularly minorities. Unfortunately, Cheeto dust probably stays on your fingers longer than this movie will likely stay in your memory.

Flamin’ Hot had its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival on March 11, and will be available to stream on Hulu on June 9. Runtime: 99 minutes. Rated PG-13.

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