SXSW’s “Switch Up” Brings an Easy Latinidad to US Rom-Coms

Switch Up

“How are you contributing [to] this world? I want people to ask themselves that question when they leave the theater,” said Julieth Restrepo, the lead of the romantic comedy Switch Up, which premiered at SXSW this week. She tells me this at the film’s wrap party, held in Robert Rodriguez’s Troublemaker Studios in Austin.

At the same event, Iranian immigrant, film writer, and director Tara Pirnia described Switch Up as Trading Places but “without the Eddie Murphy character.” The film follows Ricardo (Cristián de la Fuente) a rich, pampered, and self-absorbed Miami talk show host. In an attempt to juice his show’s ratings, he meets grieving widow Cassandra (Cassie for short, played by Restrepo) who helps run a local homeless shelter. Suddenly, he finds himself in deep legal trouble, friendless, penniless (accounts frozen), and stranded in her hometown of Brownsville, Texas. Cassie starts off angry at his pompous demeanor but slowly they go from enemies to lovers in this morality play about what truly matters (hint, it’s not fancy watches).

Throughout, the film is unabashed about its Latinx tone. It’s got a glossy telenovela vibe with brightly lit scenes, clear villains and heroes, and beautiful, light-skinned people at the center of it all. Obviously, the Latinxness comes from the setting, Maimi, and then Brownsville, but also the cast – Restrepo moved to the US from Colombia just eight years ago, and de la Fuente, who’s Chilean, has been appearing in both English- and Spanish-language productions since before the turn of the century. Our leads both have accents and exist in multiracial communities where everyone has room to thrive.

It’s also a film that is intentional about its call-to-action message. “When we went to Brownsville, we were going to shoot in an actual homeless shelter/soup kitchen. And then when we started getting into the logistics of it,” Pirnia recounts, “We didn’t want to disturb their ability to help others – when film sets shoot, they shoot for eight to 12 hours a day. We shut everything down. Nobody can come in, nobody can go out. And we just thought this is not a good idea.”

So they pivoted but they kept what they learned, eventually costuming their cast in donated clothes to ground their characters and their film. Cassie’s clothes, in particular, tell a story – both of her status as a nonprofiteer (if you know, you know) and also her journey through grief. “When we first see [Cassie], she’s just like, ‘I got my jeans on and I’m here to work.’ And then at the end, she becomes a glam girl dancing on stage,” shared Pirnia, “But that’s also her journey of when you lose somebody you love. You don’t want to look great. You don’t want to go out there. You don’t want to put yourself out there.”

The themes of loss and healing were also particularly resonant with Restrepo, who recounted, “Today after the premiere, actually, this guy came to me and he said, ‘Hey, I lost someone recently. And you made me cry so much with the scene, just talking about your husband in the movie, in that journey, because I’m going through that. And the way you guys did it, it just made me feel like I belong.’”

With moments like that, the intentions of Switch Up are clear. It’s a film urging us to “give back” or “pay it forward” as Pirnia said.

What it’s not, is a mediation on identity. The film sports a diverse cast, something everyone involved appeared proud of. Stand-out support performances come from two white guys (Temple Baker and R. Brandon Johnson as the villains) and two Black women (Shondrella Avery and Felice Heather Monteith as the lovers’ maternal figures) – and that’s not to mention the two Latino leads. In the world of Switch Up, no one is much concerned with race or ethnicity though. They note Cassandra’s blended family and move on. Johnson’s Marcus makes at least one snide remark about Ricardo’s accent and dance moves but it’s more envy than racism. These characters exist in a universe where diversity is a given and so folks have other concerns.

Instead of angst about Latinidad and its place in the world, Switch Up is all celebration, grounding the film in la cultura to make a point, not about political identity but about our responsibilities to each other as humans. “I love the fact that it’s not about us being Latin,” Restrepo told Latina Media Co. “It’s more about us coming to worldwide stories. We can be everything and anything, you know, and we are not only one thing. So thanks to movies, like Switch Up, we’re changing the conversation.”

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