SXSW Review: “Problemista”

In his feature writing and directing debut, Julio Torres lends his deadpan comic stylings to Problemista, in which he also stars as Alejandro, an Ecuadorian immigrant who is living in New York City because he’s required to be situated in the United States to apply for his dream job: that of a toy designer for Hasbro. But that vicious cycle that so many immigrants who come to this country in search of the American dream rears its ugly head: Alejandro needs money and a sponsor so he can apply for a visa so he can stay in the U.S. so he can get a job so that he can make money.

Torres’ visionary approach to a story that so many viewers can relate to, whether in pieces or as a whole, is evident so early in the film, it’s clear right away that we are about to see something special. With a dash of lo-fi sci-fi and a satirical bent that skewers everything from the out-of-sync art world to America’s broken financial system that makes it so difficult for those in debt to claw their way out of it, Torres marries his cunning script with vibrant costumes and effects and inventive characters and set pieces that illustrate Alejandro’s inner turmoil (just wait until you see Larry Owens as Craigslist).

Julio Torres and Tilda Swinton in PROBLEMISTA | Credit: Courtesy of A24

You see, as bizarre as you might think the premise to Problemista sounds, it’s actually much weirder. Alejandro grew up with a mother (a warm Catalina Saavedra) who supported his creativity. When we meet him as an adult struggling to make ends meet in the Big Apple, he’s working for a company that cryogenically freezes individuals with terminal illnesses (the catch being that the technology is so early in its infancy that no one has figured out yet how to wake the frozen folks up). He’s fired after he fails to properly look after the pod housing the body of Bobby (RZA), an artist whose series of paintings of eggs never earned him any fame or fortune in life. But an encounter with Bobby’s volatile, pink-haired wife Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton) leads to her offering him a job. If he’ll help her gather all 13 of Bobby’s egg paintings and mount them in a solo gallery show, she’ll sponsor him.

Their partnership leads to a fascinating dynamic between the meek Alejandro and the forceful Elizabeth, who doesn’t take no for an answer, often shouting unreasonable demands at service people as Alejandro looks on in horror. In many ways, she’s a nightmare boss; one of the many insane tasks (and one of the film’s great running gags) the not even remotely tech-saavy Elizabeth requires of Alejandro when she hires him is that he know how to use the program FileMaker Pro to “sync the databases” and keep track of where all their paintings are—even though they are all in one place, clearly visible in Elizabeth’s chaotic NYC apartment. The quick cuts in the editing in these scenes contribute to the atmosphere of mounting pressure. But there’s a softer side to her that’s apparent in a few flashbacks we get of her and Bobby when they were together, and in the film’s surprisingly quiet and heartfelt conclusion, in which she passes on to Alejandro the traits he needs to succeed. Swinton moves through the film like a neon tornado, turning in a performance that sits at a level of commitment audiences expect and love to see from her, but Torres, with his shuffling little walk and fiercely funny, deadpan delivery, more than meets her at that level. He fleshes out his story’s themes hysterically but also with a lot of insight that comes from personal experience. Torres wades confidently through the waters of this complex world he’s created for his first film, crafting a movie that’s not quite like anything I’ve seen recently, and that I already wish I could go back in time and watch for the first time again.

Problemista had its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival on March 13, and will be released by A24. Runtime: 98 minutes.

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