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SXSW 2023 Review: ‘Flamin’ Hot’ Is an Empowering Look at the Man Behind the Heat

SXSW 2023 Review: ‘Flamin’ Hot’ Is an Empowering Look at the Man Behind the Heat

Hot Cheetos are the snack many people love and crave. TikTok even created a moment where people used the crunchy snack to make main dishes and sides like mac and cheese and cake. Growing up, my siblings, cousins, and I would walk to the corner store to grab a small bag for 50 cents. The red dust covered our clothes, staining our tongues and fingers. Now, as an adult, I crave them less because heartburn is a real thing. I watch my 17-year-old sister eat them at the county fair with nacho cheese sauce and ground beef poured into the bag. I had never heard of the man behind the spice, nor had I ever wondered. But when SXSW announced this screening, the idea of seeing a biographical drama based on this pantry and lunch bag staple of my and my siblings’ childhood was exciting. I didn’t have any expectations going in, but even if I had, I wouldn’t have expected it to be this good. It is a story everyone should know. 

Flamin’ Hot is directed by Eva Longoria in her feature narrative debut. It tells the story of a Frito-Lay janitor, Richard Montañez (Jesse Garcia), the son of a Mexican immigrant. Inspired by the flavors of his community, Mexican American heritage, and upbringing, he came up with the idea of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. He created a snack that disrupted the food industry, revitalized Frito-Lay, and became a global phenomenon. The film is produced by best-selling author and famed preacher DeVon Franklin and was written by Linda Yvette Chávez and Lewis Colick (Charlie St. Cloud). It had its world premiere at SXSW, and the film also stars Tony Shalhoub, Dennis Haysbert, Matt Walsh, Vanessa Martinez, Annie Gonzalez, Emilio Rivera, Pepe Serna, Bobby Soto, Jimmy Gonzales, and Brice Gonzalez. 

First of all, authenticity. Watching this film with its target audience was one thing, but to also feel like this story could speak to anyone in there regardless of color was amazing. The voices that came through in the dialogue, in the acting, and in the directing were top-notch. I applaud Longoria for this home run as her feature debut. It matters, having the right people tell your story from in front of and behind the camera. This film proves what so many filmmakers of color have been saying: You can put Latinos, Blacks, Asians, or whomever in a role, and it can still resonate with everyone. Capturing and producing a film like Flamin’ Hot, which highlights the truth and cultural context of what Montañez went through to get his idea made, came from the right source. I am thrilled that Longoria was able to work with a cast and crew who resonated with the story. 

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The cast was so much fun. Garcia (Ambulance) as the leading man of the hour, Richard Montañez, is super special. Even when you know the outcome of the film, his fears, reservations, and control of his hood side really speak to you. He portrays emotion so well. As does Annie Gonzalez (Vida) as his wife, Judy. The chemistry between those two made for an incredible display of this future power couple. The friendship between Richard and Clarence, portrayed by Haysbert, is the working relationship we all wish we had — someone to bring you along with them, help you succeed, and push you to do your very best when you think that you don’t deserve to be able to do it or that you just can’t. Flamin’ Hot is full of powerful relationships that are enhanced by the actors who play them. The representation of family and the baggage and drama that come with it creates moments that audiences can understand. Family and the role of expectations, making something of yourself, and providing for your family are all themes that audiences will attach to. 

The direction, coupled with the cinematography, made for some fun moments on screen. You can’t make a film about Hot Cheetos without highlighting the red dust on the fingers, and it comes at the best time in a close-up. People connect over food all the time. Who would have thought a film about a popular chip snack could bring so many people together? Flamin’ Hot is an emotional, funny, inspiring film that is enhanced by the choices made by Longoria and cinematographer Federico Cantini. Every shot adds to the story. It’s shot in a fun way too. It’s a biography of sorts that isn’t stiff. It opens itself up like Richard Montañez himself.

I love this film for everyone, but especially the Latino community. I think everyone should see Flamin’ Hot. It is truly a motivational film that speaks to everyone in all situations. Find yourself a Judy, as Richard so eloquently put it. Find yourself a tribe that will help make your dreams a reality. In the end, while holding back tears, I wondered if we would get free bags of Hot Cheetos. The Flamin’ Hot/SXSW team did not disappoint.

Flamin’ Hot arrives on Hulu on June 9, 2023.

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