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Personal and Distinctive – Problemista (Film Review)

3 min read
Tilda Swinton and Julio Torres in Problemista

Image: Universal

It’s always refreshing for a feature debut to be uncompromising in its vision. Problemista sees SNL writer Julio Torres telling a fantastical immigration story as the film’s star, writer, director and producer. Charming and affecting, it feels like a film only Torres could make yet this modern fairytale isn’t without faults.

Drawing inspiration from his own life, Torres plays Alejandro, a whimsical young man living in New York in the hopes of becoming a toy designer for Hasbro. Evoking the energy of neurodivergent-coded characters such as Napoleon Dynamite and Abed of Community fame, Ale is a quiet, kind guy with a vivid imagination. Seen through his eyes, the world often appears a little like The Mighty Boosh, but with more colour and less unsettling imagery. Craigslist is personified as a floating genie surrounded by scraps of fabric and material. When Ale finds himself in an argument, he’s dressed as a knight fighting off a Hydra, the whole thing played out with local theatre production aesthetics. 

Problemista is a coming-of-age story too, with Ale using flights of fancy to deal with real-world issues. The biggest of his problems is securing a visa to stay in the U.S. and avoid being deported back to El Salvador. Torres brings to light the ludicrous processes immigrants have to go through; raising large amounts of money, securing a sponsor as well as a job, all in mere weeks. After being let go from his current job, time is ticking for Ale but his saviour might just be the wild Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton).

Her husband Bobby (RZA), is in cryosleep at a dodgy company, the one Ale recently got fired from, and Elizabeth enlists Ale to help manage Bobby’s artwork in the hopes of putting on a private show. The trouble with Elizabeth is that she’s an erratic woman who could explode at any moment — one misstep will cause her to unleash her wrath. Ale, ill-equipped to deal with her administrative tasks, fakes his way in order to secure his visa. 

Swinton gives a terrific performance as the firecracker art critic spewing ridiculous complaints with a Somerset twang, but the character itself is hard to get on board with. Torres aims to build a strangely sweet relationship between two estranged souls, and there are a few touching moments, but the core of their relationship is anything but. Elizabeth is simply unredeemable, even when the film tries to get the audience to sympathise with her, and Ale is simply using her for the visa. That would’ve been an interesting theme to explore — the lengths people have to go to as immigrants and how relationships can be transactional — but it’s all played off as a wholesome, kooky friendship. 

The film does have an edge though; one particular scene forgoes the fantastical escape for unnerving tension as Ale takes on a Craigslist job that could potentially be dangerous, but overall the edges are sanded down. A dissatisfying conclusion feels too easy, and the threats, hilariously and creatively realised in cutaway scenes, often rob the narrative of urgency and impact. This isn’t to say the direction doesn’t work — it absolutely does, and successfully gets across the immigrant experience — but having a couple more grounded scenes may have seen the messaging hit harder.

Torres’ feature debut as a writer and director is tonally and visually strong, but not quite a winner out of the gate. His unashamedly personal and distinctive style of storytelling is what we want to see more of in cinema, but a stronger, and perhaps braver screenplay could’ve elevated Problemista into a breakthrough moment.

Problemista will be available on digital platforms from July 8.