Lex Briscuso


Problemista – first-look review

Los Espookys' Julio Torres makes the leap to film with a surreal, touching comedy about a Salvadoran immigrant, co-starring Tilda Swinton.

Surrealism has been on the rise in filmmaking the last few years, and the genre allows for a parallel lens that helps cement the emotional weight of your story – Everything Everywhere All At Once being just one, albeit very popular, example. So, imagine my delight in entering the world of Julio Torres’ Problemista, a uniquely funny, delightfully whimsical, and endlessly smart odyssey through art, connection, and perseverance.

Best known as the creator of the Los Espookys television show, Torres’ directorial debut follows Alejandro or Ale, a Salvadoran immigrant (also played by Torres) who dreams of designing toys for Hasbro. Knowing the failings of the American immigration system, it comes as no surprise that Ale’s work visa begins to run out before his dreams can be fully realized. So what’s an aspiring toy designer to do? His salvation seemingly comes in the form of an eccentric and brash art critic named Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton) who hires him for a job that – with a little bit of frenzied effort and computer cataloging knowledge – becomes his own hope of staying in New York City and fulfilling his dreams.

Torres’ particular brand of magical realism is so self-assured and aware of its effect that the film ends up feeling a bit like a cousin or family member of The Daniels’ newly-crowned Best Picture winner. In terms of its fierce confidence and unique approach to storytelling using surrealism as its foundation, Problemista feels just as strong and special as Everything Everywhere All at Once, and it’s nice to see more filmmakers taking these kinds of big swings. It also says a lot about Torres’ directorial style, which is a bizarre and beautiful blend of deadpan humor, quick cuts, and whimsical imagery.

To the same end, Torres’ writing plays just as much with surrealism and absurdism as his direction. His script is at times enigmatic, where your eyes and ears have to play catch up with one another to put the auditory and visual pieces together and fully process the moment. But it’s also laugh-out-loud funny from start to finish, as well as achingly true to the struggles of immigration, making your dreams come true at any cost, and the power of the bonds we build in our most formative moments. Torres writes with a lived experience that is undeniable, as well as a broad and beguiling imagination that is impossible to not be charmed by.

Perhaps the best part of the film, though, is Torres’ characters. From the central Ale and the utterly unpredictable Elizabeth, to his apathetic roommates and unforgiving former boss, the film’s large cast of oddballs perfectly punctuate the particular version of New York City Torres has in mind and even push it into fairy tale or almost mythos territory. The performances sell everything unique and special about Torres’ approach to this story, and they bring his characters, who already feel so vibrant through their words, alive.

Problemista is about making art of life no matter what comes at you, and the combination of inventive direction, a spirited script, an incredible band of personalities, and a wonderfully surreal eye on it all is why that message comes through so clearly. Heartfelt from the first moments, Torres’ directorial debut will undoubtedly stick with you and have you dreaming of the odyssey of your own life – and, of course, how you hope to push through it like Alejandro does for himself.

Published 15 Mar 2023

Tags: Julio Torres SXSW Tilda Swinton

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