When we first meet Alejandro at a young age in Problemista, he is dreaming of a world beyond the one that we live in. His mother Delores (Catalina Saavedra) instilled in her son the same passion and goal oriented heart that is inside all Latinos from an early age that will result in success if they work hard to get to their destination. Within her loving environment (and elegant voiceover narration by Isabella Rossellini), this young boy from El Salvador is able to draw, think, and build worlds and ideas that stretch his mind into places of comfort so that he sees everything differently. By the time Alejandro is an adult (played by the film’s writer-director Julio Torres), he has landed on what he wants to do with his life; he wants to become a toymaker for Hasbro.
In order to apply for his dream job, he moves to New York City and gets a small apartment with roommates he barely spends time with. Coming to the US does not guarantee him the job, but just the ability to apply via the online application since it won’t allow him to apply in his home country. As he is denied over and over again, he keeps on sending the application in the hopes that he can land an interview and make a toy that will change the world. But being an immigrant to the United States causes him to get a temporary job to pay the bills and keep in good status for his visa as he must be working a job that will sponsor him. The company he works for is called Freeze Corp, a cryogenic center where they free people in the hopes of one day finding the cure and solution to their ailments and how to wake them out of their cyro-status.
By doing this mundane job, Alejandro is forced to watch over various selected pods, including Bobby (RZA), a painter who specializes in creating variations of gorgeous eggs. He combs through Bobby’s belongings, getting to know the person he is responsible for. But with Bobby comes his eccentric, troublemaking wife Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), who picks fights and bothers just about everyone she meets. When there is an argument with the company and Elizabeth over the payments for Bobby’s frozen state, Alejandro meets her for the first time, and there is an immediate connection between the two, to which they become a lot closer once Alejandro is let go from the company for accidentally having Bobby’s pod unplugged and a co-worker witnessed it.
From the time he loses his job, we can feel the walls really start to close in Alejandro, as his visa status is now in danger and he could be deported back to his country if does not find a sponsor. We see him go to the immigration offices and as people get bad news, his imagination makes them disappear because of the fact that the U.S. immigration system is ruthless and soul-crushing to all who try to – fight it and keep their status within good standing. He has to start getting creative in order to get a new job, and thus when he starts spending time with Elizabeth, and helping her with all of her insane errands and things to do in order to get Bobby’s work back in her possession, he inquires to her about her being his sponsor. She agrees but only if they are able to get the missing paintings and get an art show for them in New York City to sell them and use the money to pay for Bobby’s increased pod costs. Not having any other option, Alejandro accepts and this begins the wildest partnership of his young life.
Torres, known for being an eccentric, unique comedic talent, provides a lot of that and then some within the visual world of Problemista. From the never ending rooms with no way out showcasing the hole that Alejandro has to continuously climb out of as an immigrant, as well as an hourglass with his name on it used to show the remaining time he has left before he is kicked out of the country to even the world in which conflict with Elizabeth (and there is plenty of it) turns our young protagonist into a young knight having to fight off the evil viper who is breathing fire down his neck with her insane demands that change on a daily rate. There is even a literal manifestation of the website Craigslist (Larry Owens) when Alejandro needs to do some cash jobs on the side while he is waiting for full time employment by Elizabeth, and it is visually hilarious.
Beyond what we see, both Torres and Swinton’s characters are impressively layered with their own insecurities that cut to the core of why they need each other. For Alejandro, while a talented, driven young man, he doesn’t know how to stand up for himself, and thus the world and everyone around him can push him around, and he doesn’t react to any of it. In seeing Elizabeth’s brash, ‘doesn’t take no for answer’ mentality, he blossoms in front of our eyes and learns to find his voice, even if that means standing up to someone he cares for like Elizabeth. And for her, she is lonely and afraid of connecting with someone again like she did with Bobby, only for them to climb in a frozen box to be awoken at a random time in the distant future. But when she meets Alejandro, and he looks her right in the eye as a person, she realizes she can open her heart again, and trust someone. In these two excellent performances by Torres and Swinton, we are given a beautiful, necessary friendship morph in front of our eyes that will make your laugh pants off as well as warm your heart.
In a year with strong, exceptional directorial debuts to premiere at film festivals or released in theaters, Julio Torres’s ranks as one of the best so far. His detailed visual landscape is matched by a pitch perfect comedic tone and balanced script that makes you feel like he’s been doing this for a long time. In creating this film, you can sense that, much like the main character he portrays, Torres was in search of achieving a dream here and making something special, and he has very much accomplished that.
This review is from the 2023 SXSW Film Festival. A24 will distribute the film theatrically in the U.S.
Image courtesy of A24