Moving Pictures
Mar 06, 2024, 06:28AM

Problemista is a Dynamite Debut

Problemista is a confident and assured debut film by Julio Torres.

Images w1400.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

Julio Torres’ Problemista is a movie about a young immigrant from El Salvador trying to make a go of it in New York City with little money while always struggling with the threat of deportation. Problemista is more creative, funny, and entertaining than you’d think a movie with that plot would have. There’s no lecturing and little earnestness, and despite demonstrating the Kafkaesque nature of the visa process, the film isn’t primarily political.

Problemista debuted to strong notices at South by Southwest almost a year ago and postponed its planned late-summer release due to last year's strikes. This is a confident and assured debut film by Torres, a stand-up comedian and former Saturday Night Live writer who also created the HBO show Los Espookys. He demonstrates a one-of-a-kind cinematic voice in a film that’s as A24 as A24 gets. Meanwhile, the film features Tilda Swinton’s best performance in years.

Torres stars as Alejandro Martinez, a young man from El Salvador living in Brooklyn on a work visa that’s in danger of expiring. Torres, who’s from El Salvador, is 37 but could easily pass for his mid-20s. His dream is to work as a toy designer for Hasbro, but when we meet him, he’s working in a scammy cryogenics lab. (HBO’s excellent, A24-ish documentary series How to With John Wilson, just last year, also explored the absurdity of the freeze-people-until-their-disease-has-a-cure business, even visiting the same lab that once froze Ted Williams.)

After the lab job ends badly, he’s hired by Elizabeth (Swinton), a bottom-feeding art impresario trying to sell the paintings of her husband (RZA) to continue affording his stay at the cryo lab. She and Alejandro settle into a Devil Wears Prada-style relationship, which mainly consists of emotional abuse, demands related to Filemaker Pro, and caginess about whether she’ll sign off on his work visa application.

Meanwhile, Alejandro does odd jobs on Craigslist. Alejandro’s mother (Catalina Saavedra) appears repeatedly to demonstrate that he was raised by a supportive and caring person who was Elizabeth’s exact opposite. The script is witty and throughout, finding non-traditional ways to depict phone calls and other conversations. One character represents the human embodiment of Craigslist.

What’s somewhat radical is that the hero is usually talented and determined in this type of movie, bringing him over the top and to success. Alejandro isn’t very good at anything. He’s terrible at almost every aspect of his job, both in the cryogenics lab and as an art assistant, and from what we see of his toy ideas, they’re not great either. But how he triumphs is easily the film’s best joke.

Swinton’s a delight, as a nightmare boss who thinks she can get through life by running roughshod over everyone around her. Torres, a much less experienced actor, holds his own opposite her. There are also memorable supporting performances from Past Lives’ Greta Lee (the frozen husband’s ex-mistress), Ramy’s great Laith Nakli as an immigration lawyer, and Isabella Rossellini as the narrator.

The ending will be divisive, and I didn’t think it worked. But overall, Problemista is a dynamite debut from Torres, the most promising first feature in some time.


Register or Login to leave a comment