Julio Torres Debuts With A Charming Immigration Fairy Tale [SXSW]
Mar 15, 2023
Whimsy gets a bad rap in Hollywood. In the hands of some filmmakers, a fantastical approach can be a sign of emptiness — an attempt to obscure a simplistic or pandering narrative through layers of artifice. But the framework of fairy tales has always been a vehicle for darkness, for complex and frightening lessons about adulthood lurking hidden beneath a more friendly veneer. And with his feature debut “Problemista,” writer-director Julio Torres adopts the structure of fairy tales to tell a warm, funny, and thoughtful narrative of the immigrant experience in America.
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Alejandro (Torres), our narrator explains, has always been a dreamer. Raised by a mother in El Salvador who encouraged his creativity, Alejandro immigrated to the United States to apply for a position in Hasbro’s virtual talent incubator. He is an aspiring toy designer, you see, and because Hasbro’s online application only allows for applications from within the United States, Alejandro has built a small life for himself in New York City, working for a cryogenics company as he waits for Hasbro to accept his application.
But when an accident at work costs him his job — and therefore his work Visa — Alejandro finds himself racing his ticking immigration clock. He needs to pay the legal costs to have another employer sponsor him, but he is not allowed to make money until the new sponsor has been found. This paradox pushes him right into the arms of Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), an art critic looking to raise funds to support the preservation of her late husband, Bobby (RZA). Bobby froze himself after a terminal cancer diagnosis in the hope that he would one day awaken to a cure – and a newfound appreciation for his paintings of eggs. If Alejandro can help Elizabeth secure a private show for Bobby’s work, she promises to sponsor his employment.
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“Problemista” is a film about artistic vision, albeit the kind of vision that appeals to very few. When inspiration strikes, Alejandro reaches for his notebook, doodling sketches of unsellable toys. We see his pitch for a Barbie doll with her fingers crossed behind her back, the Cabbage Patch doll whose iPhone accessory contains photos of odd sores she’s sent to her family in the hope of a diagnosis, a truck with one deflated tire. Toys are too occupied with the concept of fun, Alejandro explains, and his designs are meant to challenge children as much as entertain them.
Those who know Torres through standup or his work on “Los Espookys” — or even just “Saturday Night Live” sketches like ‘Wells for Boys’ — will recognize these kinds of gags as part of the writer-director’s absurdist streak of humor. Torres’ characters possess an ethereal kind of confidence, determined in their desires even at the risk of being disconnected from the audience. “Problemista” combines all his comedic instincts into one wonderful package, playing with humor and storytelling in a way that is both remarkably cohesive but undeniably him.
Granted, he’s got some help. Swinton finds a little Miranda Priestly in the character of Elizabeth, Alejandro’s abusive would-be employer. Those close to her refer to her as the hydra, a woman whose rejections only inspire redoubled outrage on her behalf. Elizabeth is undoubtedly one of Swinton’s great cinematic weirdos, but the emotions that drive her — to earn recognition for her late husband as an artist (and justify her own sacrifices in the process) — are surprisingly never far from the surface. We may laugh as Elizabeth wages her never-ending war against digital filing systems and iPad keyboards, but we — like Alejandro — cannot begrudge her desire for a sense of control over something in her life.
The film’s rhythm is built around Elizabeth’s frequent outbursts and Alejandro’s fantasy sequences. He frequently imagines Elizabeth as a dragon and himself as a reluctant knight; meanwhile, he personifies his dead-end Craigslist searches as a hedonistic emcee draped in digital clutter. In this way, Julio Torres positions himself as a cross between Miranda July and Bryan Fuller, utilizing whimsy and lo-fi theatricality to tell a story about the tenacity it takes to hold onto dreams. Elizabeth and Alejandro are kindred spirits because they each have a piece of what is needed to keep those dreams alive – but their success requires both the forcefulness and the empathy that can only be found when they are together.
But whereas many films like “Problemista” build out the contradiction between fantasy and reality, Torres keeps the two intertwined. In one scene, Alejandro pleads with a Bank of America representative to process a payment that had been flagged as fraudulent. With that payment held, Alejandro’s bank account quickly succumbs to a series of overdraft fees, a cascading penalty that wipes out what little savings he had. The check was held “for his protection,” the woman says with a pained smile. We see the scene as fantasy — our brave knight crumbled under the weight of a hundred rocks — but the financial struggle underneath it is unquestionably real.
In fact, “Problemista” is much like the toys that Alejandro creates: it offers the veneer of childlike wonder, but each moment is meant to force our own reflections on life and interpersonal connections. Torres operates in fantasy not out of contrivance or self-satisfaction but because fairy tales remain the best way to tell emotionally complex stories. Torres peels back layers of the immigrant story in something packaged as entertainment. It may appear whimsical, but you don’t need to dig too deep beneath the surface to find universal emotions underneath. [A-]
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