Review by Tatiana Miranda
Julio Torres's directorial debut Problemista has already gained much acclaim from its premiere at SXSW, and at NewFest Pride, the film's third-ever screening, it received a standing ovation. Torres has made a name for himself as a writer on SNL, responsible for beloved sketches such as "Papryus" starring Ryan Gosling and "Wells for Boys" with Emma Stone. For fans of these sketches, they'll be delighted to see some recurring themes and imagery in Problemista. Starring Torres as a Salvadoran immigrant trying to make it in New York City as a toy designer, this film is a whimsical blend of comedy and critique of the U.S. immigration system.
While the main character Alejandro's toy designs feel similar to SNL's "Wells for Boys" sketch, Problemista is wholly unique in its voice and story of trying to follow creative pursuits as an immigrant. The film's satirical nature doesn't relent on the absurdity of otherwise mundane things, such as the Bank of America's overdraft policy and the confusing labyrinth that is the immigration system.
Much of Problemista's comedy also comes from its intense and wildly creative imagery. For instance, instead of simply showing Alejandro searching for gigs on Craigslist, he is confronted with a mystical being surrounded by the garbage you would find being sold online. The film's whimsical nature doesn't come out of left field, though, as the movie opens with Alejandro as a young boy who is raised by his artist mother. Together they create a fantastical castle, which later translates to his inherited whimsy and creativity.
Along with Torres, Problemista stars Tilda Swinton as a Karen-esque art curator whose artist husband has been cryogenically frozen. Her character may be crazed and unable to take no for an answer, but she teaches Alejandro how to stand up for himself and take advantage of the otherwise unfair world they live in. In fact, Swinton steals the show as the pseudo-villain turned friend for Alejandro. She injects plenty of comedy into the film, as well as heartfelt moments between her and Torres's character that gives the film depth.
Torres's humor and visual style make this film incredibly entertaining, and his experience as an immigrant makes it a great representation of the absurdity of the American dream. After the untimely demise of his co-creation Los Espookys, it's refreshing that Torres's creativity and talented voice are not subject to stop there but instead get to live on with Problemista and whatever he comes up with next.
Problemista screened at the 2023 edition of NewFest Pride, which runs June 1-5.