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SXSW 2023 Review: ‘Problemista’ — A Bizarre Take on What It Looks Like to Follow Your Dreams

SXSW 2023 Review: ‘Problemista’ — A Bizarre Take on What It Looks Like to Follow Your Dreams

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A24 continues to bring bizarre and heartfelt stories from diverse filmmakers into our lives. The film Problemista tackles numerous conversations that we are having in the United States. It does so with humor, relatable themes, and a great leading cast. 

Problemista is the first feature film from Saturday Night Live’s Julio Torres, which he wrote, directed, and stars in. It’s a bold look at what it means to chase an extraordinary dream while also being stuck in the more awkward stretch of your twenties. It’s a hopeful and empowering story that highlights the hypocrisy of rules, laws, regulations, and the status divide. It’s the outer circle versus the inner circle. A lot of things are mentioned in this film, but not all are properly fleshed out. 

The film follows Alejandro, an aspiring toy designer from El Salvador, struggling to land his dream job at Hasbro in New York. He has some unusual ideas for the toy world. When he gets fired from his job, he has a month to figure out a new job before his work visa runs out and he’s deported. A job assisting an erratic art critic becomes his only hope to stay in the country and realize his dream. The story then takes us on a surreal adventure through the treacherous worlds of New York City, the art world, and the U.S. immigration system. 

With a bit of magical realism, Problemista centers in part on the nightmare that is U.S. immigration. The story of Alejandro’s visa status is just one facet of the film’s bizarre, yet delightful, character trying to satisfy a hyper-specific goal. Alejandro is the underdog of the story. Everything seems to be against him, except Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton) and his mother back in El Salvador. The relationship Alejandro has with these two women shape the man he becomes. 

When Alejandro’s back is against the wall, Elizabeth provides both chaos and order in his life. Wonderfully acted, the characters Torres and Swinton portray have a great friendship that comes across as great chemistry in the film. Torres brings his physical comedy to the role, as well as his special blend of dry, sarcastic humor. Elizabeth is an art world outcast who comes across as unhinged, anxious, slightly annoying, and loyal. Swinton provides that spark that only she can provide. It’s dramatic, serious, funny, and charming. She gives off Willy Wonka and Devil Wears Prada vibes. 

While Alejandro’s mother gave him all she could and encouraged him to chase his dreams, he was trained by his mom to always want the thing and expect that he was going to get everything he wanted, even if he didn’t have the path to it. To see how that translates from Alejandro the kid Alejandro the adult is fascinating. 

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Life is hard, especially at the ripe old age of 20-something, when you are still trying to figure out who you are. But Problemista comes with the added uncertainty of figuring out your immigration status. The film is empowering and motivational as Alejandro insists he’s meant to become a toy designer. His passion for this venture never wanes. His commitment to himself never goes away. This is what connects Alejandro and Elizabeth. They are both passionate about their desires. They both need each other to balance it out from one extreme to another. 

It’s a relatable film that encourages people to connect and share their dream, because you never know how they will help. It’s a lovely sentiment. There are a lot of conversations happening in Problemista. From immigration to bank laws and art culture to privilege, there are times when the film takes on too much at once. Director Torres clearly has a lot to say, but could do to hone in on a specific few. 

The cinematographer Fredrik Wenzel (Triangle of Sadness) did a great job capturing the humor and essence of these characters and New York. According to A24, Swinton and Torres refer to costume designer Catherine George (Succession) as “the mastermind behind the larger-than-life shadow that Elizabeth almost literally casts.” Elizabeth’s clothing is the standout of the film. The camera shots, wardrobe, and cast really bring this story to life. 

The one thing that needed work was the audio and pacing. The film was very funny, but the jokes kept coming and coming and didn’t leave space for audience laughter. Some lines couldn’t be heard because either the crowd’s laughter or the background music overpowered. 

Problemista is about Alejandro’s adventure in life, but it also shows everyone else in their own journey, full of their own small trials and significant wins. This film truly is chaos — hilarious and impactful, but definitely chaotic. Problemista isn’t perfect, but for a feature directorial debut, it is pretty awesome. The crowd in Austin loved this film. It’s a little weird, which tracks for SXSW and A24. 

Problemista stars Julio Torres, Tilda Swinton, Catalina Saavedra, RZA, James Scully, Laith Nakli, Greta Lee, Larry Owens, and Isabella Rossellini as the film’s narrator. It officially premiered at SXSW on Monday, March 13, 2023. No word yet of when a wide release will take place.

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