Review of the Problemista

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It feels like writing about A24’s Problemista is as impossible as trying to capture a cloud in a bottle, it’s interesting, enjoyable and damn near inconceivable. This film is full of surprises and revelations so when I look at it I am not sure how to put everything into several hundred words. Comedian Julio Torres’ first full-length movie as a writer, director, and star shines like a jewel with infinite facets from the brain behind some of the best skits on Saturday Night Live in last decade that had the sharpest observations. (In fact he wasn’t really seen on SNL but you must have caught Ryan Gosling losing his mind because of this picture’s font.) This is an adult fairy tale set against the backdrop of everyday life – namely, immigration – which is both crushing and ridiculous beyond belief. For us, Problemista breaks down the hero’s journey into tiny bits, either totally shattering or cunningly reaffirming our expectations before we arrive at an ending that happily ever after knows intimately what human loneliness means.

Torres deconstructs like a master. With his comedy, he takes very simple observation and shows how even minor changes can entirely change meaning to something else. This becomes obvious from Alejandro’s toy ideas in Problemista played by Torres: A spiral coil that doesn’t go downstairs alone children are encouraged to embrace their own path instead. Barbie dolls whose fingers are crossed behind them while playing “tight”. Cabbage patch kids who use mobile phones inside their bellies for personal lives as well as relationships with others. The combination of just these words brings laughter enough; though hearing those words repeated in Torres’ dry monotone voice and depicted through art gallery meets QVC cutaways makes it even funnier.

Every design reveals another pieceof Ale’s world of strange introspection . Like a wandering fae standing right at its center should this be regarded as a fable. Ale has been brought up with so much love and security by an artist mother that his rather meek navigation of a hostile New York City feels like a Little Red Riding Hood sequel where she’s become an adult searching for employment.

Alejando’s opposite number, Elizabeth, the deranged art critic played by Tilda Swinton comes across as truly frenetic. She is both a nemesis and mentor to Alejandro who hoards the keys to visa sponsorship over him while barking out orders to anyone she meets. A archetypal wicked witch with remarkable depth. As with Ale and his toys, Elizabeth’s state of mind is cleverly exposed in the smallest details of her styling. In an arrested state of mourning for her artist partner Bobby (RZA) – not exactly deceased but cryogenically stored –she keeps her hair red speaking to her audacity. The untouched roots of those blazing locks, meanwhile, let the audience know she’s given up self-care rituals like regular salon visits.

With an inexplicable loneliness stalking its edges, the film has an unnamed antagonist. Ale’s boss is also his best friend because work is what most young people are. With the added dimension of his precarious immigration status that characters such as his roommate cannot but sympathize with, but never understand, every minute that Ale doesn’t spend sleeping is devoted to staying alive. In addition to such small indignities as these, Torres presents one made by adulthood. Is it only memories in Filemaker Pro (not to mention another funny “hunting” task Ale has no choice but do)? Or else your personal Sisyphus’ rock? How many times have you said sorry when you didn’t mean it? And how many times have you yielded to a conceited manager? How many times have you declined invitations to save a bit of cash? It’s like death by a thousand cuts and if you aren’t careful, it will kill you.

In Problemista’s dreamy vision of scraping through life in the city, everything once unpleasant grows into indestructible obstacles of monstrous proportions. Look at the tortuous maze that constitutes the broken U.S. immigration system. As Isabella Rossellini narrates about visa acquisition impossibility, Ale starts climbing winding staircases which lead nowhere and passing through locked doors without keys or codes for opening them. This leads us into Larry Owens’ ingenious presentation of Craigslist where the anonymous nature of this platform is turned into a mysterious being hidden away in a dimly lit room glowing eerily as if from within –nothing more than Ursula from The Little Mermaid offering “unfortunate souls” their greatest desires with severe consequences.

Problemista complicates our understanding of Elizbeth who Bobby once called “the hydra”, a nickname which figures significantly in this film’s most manifest fantasy sequence thus signaling a power imbalance between her and Alejandro too. Elizabeth knows how to play the game better than anyone else since she is a rich white woman who knows how to maneuver in the system designed for people like her. Elizabeth isn’t good, and the fact that it’s never suggested that she is matters a great deal. Instead, she becomes a twisted mirror image of Ale. A monster for him to destroy and control. Although their relationship is central to Problemista, it is his journey that gives the film its heartrending nature. Still he survives, even manages to profit from this strange setup they have got themselves into. If Ale’s mother taught him he deserved the world, Elizabeth teaches him to demand it.


Problemista is an imaginative story about what happens when a maker of toys tries to navigate through U.S immigration regulations; it is Julio Torres’ fully contemplated wistful fantasy trip around everyday magic. In his own particular manner of comedy, Julio Torres provides some distinct weirdness for this tale. Tilda Swinton’s amazing performance as an eccentric art critic complements Torres’ character with its sweetness without ever taking away from him as a protagonist. The writer, director, and lead actor debut was no less than wonderful.”

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