In SXSW’s “Problemista,” Julio Torres Whimsically Skewers US Meritocracy

Julio Torres and Tilda Swinton in SXSW 2023 feature, PROBLEMISTA | Credit: Courtesy of A24

There are few filmmakers who know how to get the heightened, frantic nature of anxiety pitch perfect on screen. Julio Torres, best known for his work on the dearly departed Los Espookys and Saturday Night Live, is one of them. In his feature debut, Problemista, Torres uses his affinity for heightened emotions and mixes it with magical realism to create a wholly unique, hilarious, and poignant look at what it takes for marginalized folks to make their dreams a reality. 

SXSW 2023’s Problemista tells the story of Alejandro Martinez (played wonderfully by Torres), a Salvadoran immigrant in New York who longs to bring his unconventional toy designs to Hasbro. However, being an artist in one of the most competitive cities in the world is tough, and Ale has to make ends meet and stay in the country working as an archivist for a cryogenic company. He keeps watch over Bobby (RZA), a misunderstood-in-his-time artist who painted eggs. When things go awry and Ale gets fired from his job, he ends up working for erratic art critic and Bobby’s former partner, Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton, delightfully unhinged). Together, this unlikely duo decide to put on the show Bobby always wanted to have. 

Ale’s journey throughout the movie illuminates all the frustrating pitfalls and stupid conditions of the U.S. immigration system. Problemista’s critique manages to be effective, whimsical, and sobering at the same time. The film visualizes navigating the draconian, overwrought immigration system through a closed loop of stairs, locked rooms, and keys just out of reach. You need the money for lawyers to file your application to stay, Ale explains, but you also need to have your paperwork completed to even be considered for work. Oh, and you also need cash to survive. It’s a vicious, seemingly endless cycle.

Julio Torres. Photo Credit: Mitch Zachary
Julio Torres. Photo Credit: Mitch Zachary

The beige, bland cubicles that Torres uses to illustrate this infuriating bureaucratic system are haunting, illustrating the spiral Ale and other immigrants are stuck in and have no control over. In the movie, immigrants’ visa dates are held in a nondescript warehouse, depicted as neatly labeled hourglasses where everyone’s sand is running out. When it does, we see characters evaporate from everyday life. It’s at once a surreal and harrowing image: a system that can instantly erase people from their own lives. When Alejandro flickers at one point, nearly dissipating off-screen, it’s a heartstopping moment.

In addition to getting to the emotional experience of being an immigrant in the US, Problemista also uses magical realism to let us into Ale’s headspace. Whenever faced with a confrontation with Elizabeth, we are suddenly transported to a dragon’s lair – Ale is clad in a knight’s armor, and Elizabeth is the dragon he must calm if he wants to remain employed. Before he starts working with her, and to make cash on the side, Ale explores the mystical void of Craigslist ads (beautifully portrayed by Larry Owens), entangled in its endless, questionable offerings. It’s humorous and wholly distinct – a great example of Torres’ unique brand of humor. We look at the world from Ale’s eyes throughout the movie, but his unique perspective really stands out in segments like these. 

Speaking of Ale, I would be remiss if I didn’t address the personal affection I felt for the main character while I was watching it. As a fellow, ambitious-yet-awkward Ale Martinez, it was a true delight seeing not only someone who shares my name on-screen but also something close to my own perspective, too. Ale and I are very different in some respects, but I felt close to him throughout Problemista. For instance, after enduring a grueling lunch with Elizabeth, where she’s complained to their waiter about basically everything, we get to feel the heightened atmosphere of Ale’s secondhand embarrassment – even the nervous clicking of a pen gets its own close-up and emphasized sound design. It’s a feeling that’s familiar to me and anyone else who’s dealt with anxiety in social situations: everything feels overwhelming and over-emphasized. It’s also genuinely funny, one of many ways Torres cleverly illustrates the truth of a situation by combining humor and discomfort. It’s also great to see Ale learn to take up space and combat his own unease over the course of the film, particularly because we so rarely see queer Latine people on that particular journey.

The movie, however, is not without its weaknesses. What ends up being the emotional core of the movie (Ale and Elizabeth’s odd couple) is a little hollow. Elizabeth is prickly and basically an art world “Karen.” This puts a wrench in what the movie asks of us: to see both characters as outsiders. It’s hard to ignore the privileges afforded Elizabeth as a white woman and the ultimate factor in whether or not Ale gets to remain in the U.S. It’s a relationship that’s complicated, and while I found the ending somewhat moving, I wish this dynamic had been explored a bit more. 

Ultimately, Problemista is an inventive, hilarious, and welcome feature debut from Torres. Its depiction of immigration is rightfully skewering. And its celebration of queer Latine creativity is a rare and welcome salve in our current hellscape. Although its emotional center isn’t as nuanced as I’d like, it’s still worth seeing, especially for every ambitious, awkward Ale chasing their dreams in the world.

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