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  • Writer's pictureSaxon Whitehead

'Problemista': Julio Torres and Tilda Swinton Shine in Off-Beat, Endearing Comedy

It is always exciting when a filmmaker makes their debut feature. It is even more exciting when they are able to showcase a distinct style and personality to their work that makes them stand out amongst their peers. This is certainly the case with Problemista, the feature debut from comedian and former SNL writer Julio Torres. In this film, we encounter cryo-freezing technology, paintings of eggs, people disappearing, and one of the most unhinged bosses to grace the silver screen. At the same time, the film is also a tale of the American Dream and immigration, detailing our protagonist's quest to stay in America and get his dream job. Anyone familiar with Torres's work can agree this is well in line with his sensibilities, and this is clearly a very personal project for him. Problemista announces Torres as an exciting new voice in cinema, and is one of the funniest and most touching films I've seen in the past few years.

Alejandro (Julio Torres) is an aspiring toy designer living in New York City. He struggles to make his unconventional ideas a reality, and his work visa is about to expire. When he crosses paths with Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), an art world outcast, he finds a way to potentially stay in the country by working as her assistant. However, Elizabeth's erratic and often irrational behavior proves to make this easier said than done, as she is clearly more than what Alejandro bargained for. Through this, Alejandro works with her to realize a long held dream for her, as well as work towards his life's dream of being a toy designer.

From the outset, you can feel how closely this film is tied to Julio Torres's experiences and his personality. The film quickly lets you know what it is, starting off with a touching scene of young Alejandro and his mother in El Salvador before transitioning to a sequence that shows his borderline absurd life in present day New York. This particular sequence is a little exposition heavy, but it perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the film. There is a strange mixture of reality and surrealism that Torres infuses into the film, which gives it a distinct identity and yields some interesting filmmaking choices and some of the films funnier moments. Torres maintains a good balance between the film's more ridiculous moments and the more realistic aspects of it, creating something that is unique and off-beat, but also leaving plenty for audiences to connect with. So much of his personality is all over this film, and it has me excited to see what else he creates in the future.

On paper, Problemista is another "boss-from-hell" movie, but the way Torres weaves this plotline in with commentary on immigration, gig economy, and human connection makes it something more. When filtered through his surrealist lens, these things become easier to process, while not sacrificing the weight of what he is ultimately saying about them. Furthermore, the way he writes the characters of Alejandro and Elizabeth is fascinating, and the scenes between them are the heart and soul of the whole film. The contrast between them is so strong, as Alejandro is relatively calm and quieter, while Elizabeth is chaotic and outspoken. I am a sucker for movies about people who are polar opposites that meet and learn from each other, so this aspect of the film really spoke to me. But the best thing is, the film doesn't take the obvious route in this regard. The characters do grow as the film goes on, but they do so in slightly unexpected ways. I don't want to get into specifics because that would get into spoiler territory, but suffice to say that the journey that both Alejandro and Elizabeth is a major focal point for the whole film.

Most of this is credit to Torres and Tilda Swinton's performances in the film, which are both excellent. Torres has this more reserved energy about him as Alejandro, which allows the humor of the film to shine through. It is a soft-spoken character, but Torres makes him pop just the right amount. I was also intrigued by the specific way that Alejandro walks, as Torres gives him an almost childlike gait at times. This ends up saying so much about the character, and is such an interesting physical choice that helps him stand out in the world of the film. Swinton is one of those actors who is always great, but her work here in particular is a masterclass. She perfectly understands the tone of the film and the specificity of her character, and she absolutely nails it. She is loud, overbearing, and unreasonable, yet you can't help but feel for her somehow. It is such a calibrated comedic performance that is different from the bulk of Swinton's work, yet is at the same quality we've come to expect from her. Torres and Swinton are so good together, and complement each other's energy so well. The ways they play off each other benefit the film so much, and they both really impressed me.

The film has such a charming aura around it, largely due to Torres's direction and the world he creates here. The production design is great, especially for some of the more fantastical locations, and the editing does a lot to give the film some personality. The film is rather inviting, even in its darker moments, and it has an infectious energy that clicked with me nicely. It's the type of film that might be off-putting to some, but it has such a likable spirit that I could see it catching on with audiences as well. It is hard to believe that this is a debut a times, because Torres is so assured and has so much specificity in his direction that it feels like this film is coming from a more experienced filmmaker. It makes me excited to see whatever he does next, as he is definitely an exciting new voice in cinema.

Problemista is one of the most unique and most assured feature debuts I've seen in some time, and asserts Julio Torres as one of our most interesting new filmmakers. It is the type of touching, hilarious film that I can see myself revisiting several times, as it is comforting and quite lovely as a whole. In many ways, it is like one of the many toy designs we see from Alejandro throughout the film, in that it takes something familiar, but puts its own spin it. Beyond that, it recontextualizes so much of what we typically see in films that explore some of the ideas that this film does. It truly took me by surprise many times while watching it, and it is easily one of the most fascinating films I've seen so far this year.

Rating: 4/5

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