North Texas Daily

SXSW 2023: ‘Problemista’ resists conformity, shares immigration realities

SXSW 2023: ‘Problemista’ resists conformity, shares immigration realities

SXSW 2023: ‘Problemista’ resists conformity, shares immigration realities
May 05
14:00 2023

AUSTIN, Texas — Adorned with a black and gold party hat and bright orange hair, writer and actor Julio Torres beams on The Paramount Theatre stage after the debut of his first directorial project, “Problemista.” His quirky star-inspired outfit perfectly mirrored the playful aspects of his unconventionally imaginative film.

“It’s just a human mess,” Torres said at a Q&A panel following the screening. “I’m very happy that it’s a messy, messy movie.”

“Problemista,” co-produced by A24 and Emma Stone under her Fruit Tree banner, introduces audiences to Alejandro (Torres), a struggling Salvadorian toy designer trying to find success in New York City. He dreams of working with the Hasbro company to bring his offbeat ideas to life. Smartphone-wielding Cabbage Patch gossips and untrustworthy Barbies who hide crossed fingers behind their backs are just a few examples of Alejandro’s drafted concepts.

Tilda Swinton stands on The Paramount Theatre stage following the premiere of “Problemista” at SXSW on March 13, 2023. Madeleine Moore

Alejandro’s American dreams are put on hold when he is suddenly fired from his position at a futurist cryogenic freezing company. He has to find another job to sponsor his visa and fast — otherwise, he’ll be deported. Enter Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), a messily eccentric former art critic with a harsh personality and an even harsher sense of style. She promises to sponsor Alejandro if he can help her pull off a gallery exhibiting a series of paintings from her cryogenically frozen husband, whom Alejandro once monitored.

From the opening scene, Torres immerses audiences in the illogical yet inspired “Problemista” universe. A young Alejandro is seen living in a brightly colored, Suess-esque El Salvador with his mother, an artist who creates fantastical, unfeasible structures for his peace and merriment.

When a grown Alejandro makes the move to immigrate to the United States, he is met with the dull, brash conditions of New York that starkly contrast those of his home country. However, Torres keeps the wonderment of Alejandro alive through a series of fantasy-filled scenes to show his interpretation of the evils of the world, like Craigslist and Bank of America.

While surrealist visuals and bizarre humor form the bones of “Problemista”’s overall structure, the film’s true heart is found in the relationship between Alejandro and Elizabeth.

As Alejandro continues to put up with Elizabeth’s impossible requests, their dynamic slowly becomes less transactional and develops into something more personal. Several scenes throughout the film toe the lines of “aha!” moments where the pair realizes how similar they truly are.

Despite opposite personalities, both are labeled as outsiders by most of the world and long for a sense of familiarity and understanding. Audiences also infer that as an immigrant herself, Elizabeth has followed paths similar to Alejandro in her past. However, as the pair begin to take steps toward the edge of interconnection, Elizabeth’s prickly temperament often reverses their progress.

As the sand of Alejandro’s hourglass continues to fall (literally), he is met with more daunting obstacles. Without a steady position or pay, the hopeful designer is forced to pick up irregular, degrading jobs that range from street selling hair products to answering unsettling online houseboy ads for cash needed to pay rent and future visa fees.

Director and lead Julio Torres answers a question following the world premiere of “Problemista” at The Paramount Theatre on March 13, 2023. Madeleine Moore

While later aspects of the film are unsettling, they implement a sense of realism. Torres said the film was inspired by his own similar experiences immigrating to the U.S., and the connection to his work is evident throughout the film. 

Personal narrative elements seamlessly bleed through “Problemista”’s otherwise comical qualities. Such drastic shifts in tone disrupt some of the film’s amusing momentum but don’t exactly hinder its storytelling. Torres dives deep into the frustrations, stressors and absurdities of the American immigration system all without fogging up “Problemista”’s humorous lens — an impressive feat for a first feature film.

Torres’ film also revolves around another theme that is more widely universal to the characters and their audience: believing in and embracing one’s own absurdities.

The ideas of self-discovery and individuality are not by any means foreign to Hollywood. However, under Torres’ colorfully obscure lens, the concepts are able to branch into something newer and more personal for contemporary audiences.

Although not without its flaws, “Problemista” delivers real-world, adult narratives through a playful, spirited vessel and includes some of Torres’ most creative work to date. While a theatrical release for “Problemista” has yet to be announced, one can only hope to see more from the likes of its nonconformist director and his extensive imagination.

Samantha’s rating: 4/5

Featured Image RZA (left), Julio Torres, Catalina Saavedra and Tilda Swinton speak at a Q&A following the world premiere of “Problemista” at The Paramount Theatre on March 13, 2023. Rose Wright

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Samantha Thornfelt

Samantha Thornfelt

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