SXSW 2023: ‘Problemista’ Review
The following is part of our coverage of SXSW 2023. For more, click here.
SXSW 2023 is a phenomenal year for debut features. Of course, the Phillipous lit up the Midnighters category with the stupendously terrifying Talk to Me, Brittany Snow’s Parachute nabbed a festival award for its lead performance, and with Problemista, it’s Julio Torres’ time to shine. The surreal comic has been quietly making a splash for a while, writing the popular “Papyrus” sketch for Saturday Night Live and the canceled but well-loved HBO comedy-horror Los Espookys. His first film as a director is an assured work that announces him as a vital creative voice. Drawing from the immigrant experience in America, the crushing pain of being a young person just trying to survive, the feeling of being an outsider, and his own bonkers sensibility, Problemista is bound to mean a lot to people from all walks of life.
Torres stars in Problemista as Alejandro, an aspiring toymaker who immigrated to the United States from El Salvador. He doesn’t want to make just any kind of toys… his designs are a little more avant-garde. A Barbie with its finger crossed to stir up drama in the Dream House and a Cabbage Patch Doll with a cell phone are among his out-there ideas. Alejandro is compulsively likable as a protagonist, his timid though always kind demeanor endearing. Facing an expiring visa, he gets a job at a cryogenics facility where people can have themselves frozen. He gets the assignment to look after the frozen artist Bobby (RZA), whose specialty was painting eggs. This facility, its unnerving sterility shot in a kitschy manner by cinematographer Frederik Wenzel, is a taste of the quirk Problemista has in store.
READ: SXSW 2023: ‘Bottoms’ Review
Due to an unfortunate error, Alejandro loses his job at the facility. Enter the titular “problemista”, or troublemaker, Sharon (Tilda Swinton). The significant other of Bobby, Sharon is a tornado of a woman. Eccentric, fast-talking, and absolutely demanding that she gets her way, Sharon shows a side of Swinton that audiences haven’t seen before. Alejandro jumps at the opportunity to work with her to help sell Bobby’s egg paintings, founded on the promise that she’ll sponsor his work visa after selling off all the paintings. Alejandro will find that working for Sharon is going to be a lot more work than he expected.
What Problemista gets right about being alive in 2023 is the absolute struggle of just trying to keep a roof over your head. This is compounded by the immigrant experience that Torres so powerfully draws from. Although I can’t speak to that experience personally, I can speak to many of the stressful situations Alejandro encounters, such as arguing with the bank over predatory service charges that don’t really mean anything other than more money in their pocket or the terrors of (shudder) using FileMaker Pro. A great aesthetic flourish is the portrayal of Craigslist as some kind of Lovecraftian entity, played wonderfully by the hilarious Larry Owens, that whispers questionable job suggestions through fog and tendrils.
The film could easily depict the relationship between Alejandro and Sharon as a simple “Karen” versus put-upon assistant dynamic. And there’s certainly a hint of that! Visualizing Alejandro going up against Sharon as a knight encountering a dragon is an ingenious method of scratching that itch. Surprisingly, though, Problemista really carries with it a poignant friendship between these. The theme of outsiders courses deep within Problemista’s giant heart. No one seems to understand Alejandro’s struggle or his toy ideas. No one can handle Sharon’s overwhelming nature or desire to simply be seen. Torres invites us to accept each other with open arms.
Outsiders are pervasive throughout Problemista. Bobby the misunderstood artist. Catalina Saavedera as Alejandro’s mother who is trying to hone her own creativity while worrying constantly about her son. People like Sharon’s affluent, disinterested intern Bingham (James Scully) run the world. What Problemista supposes is that those shut out should assert themselves. In what is likely to be A24’s next crowd-pleaser, audiences are invited to persevere, to make room where others don’t let them. And that’s something to get behind. – James Preston Poole
Problemista has no current release date.
Did you like this article? If so, consider visiting our YouTube channel, where we discuss the latest and greatest in pop culture news.
Leave a Comment