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SXSW Review: ‘Problemista’ is a Surreal Slice of Julio Torres’ Stylings

By Lindsay Traves | Film | March 15, 2023 |

By Lindsay Traves | Film | March 15, 2023 |


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Julio Torres is familiar to many as some of the brains behind the spunky Los Espookys, or for his crackling bit part in Shrill. Anyone who knows him knows: he’s funny. So it’s not surprising that his directorial debut, Problemista, was met with rowdy laughter from a sold-out crowd.

The writer/ director stars in his own film as Alejandro, a man from El Salvador setting up life in the United States so he can follow his dream of being a toy maker. Alejandro has to maintain a job in order to retain his visa and stay in the country so his desperation mounts when he’s fired from his job as an archivist at a cryogenic facility. On his way out and into the world of unemployment, he meets Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), the nutty and high maintenance wife of his cryogenically frozen charge. Elizabeth is an eccentric art critic on the fringes of art society who stumbles her way through the world by yelling at everyone until they concede. Her desperate for assistance, and Alejandro desperate for a sponsor, the two enter into an arrangement where she will employ him as a freelance until they complete an art show to sell her frozen husband’s painting. Ale, much more secure in his physical feel, trips around the system of getting legal status, collecting gig work cash from Craigslist, and catering to Elizabeth’s impossible whims.

Torres’ story is that of the frustrating experience of an immigrant chasing his dream. Within there, he touches on the whole millennial and gen Z experience of staying afloat in the working world, him sending video job applications into the ether and struggling to manage bank fees and roommates while trying to honestly get by. All the while doing so, he is managing a The Devil Wears Prada working relationship with Elizabeth just hoping that she will do the right thing in the end and sign his sponsorship paperwork. Torres tackles such a challenging experience with comedy, making him a worthy stand-in relatable for many of us and our experiences.

Torres’ absurd comedy is ever present here, his direction adding more surrealist elements. Narration by Isabella Rossellini, fantasy and futuristic sequences, and a personification of Craigslist (from Larry Owens) makes for a bubblegum collection of dreamlike delights. Torres’s signature dry acting style is dropped into the surreal setting in a way that creates a nice contrast. Swinton’s unhinged performance is a compliment to Torres’ quiet and monotonous cadence. In some ways, it revels in the absurd for too long, many elements feeling like they were pushed into places where you beg for emotional beats. Ale’s relationship with his mother, his rejection of other employment options, and his loyalty to Elizabeth are not explored enough to make his choices meaty enough or believable, and the heart feels like collateral damage for the shtick having favor.

Torres’ story of an immigrant refusing to give up on his American dream is a cool-toned and warm-blooded take on the young-ish-adult experience of keeping your head above water. It’s also a smart tale of how different people’s experiences shape them and how they interact with the world as a result. Though never a lesson, Torres’ story is of the layered experience of a man with intersecting identities and the power of a shrieking white woman.

Problemista premiered at the 2023 SXSW Film & TV Festival.