Film Review: “Problemista” — Immigration Blues

By Alyssa Winn

In Problemista, Julio Torres has managed to make the trauma of the undocumented immigrant, struggling to stay in America, as amusing as it is agonizing.

Problemista, written and directed by Julio Torres. Screening at AMC Boston Common, Coolidge Corner Theatre, Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, and other movie houses around New England.

Julio Torres, left, and Tilda Swinton in a scene from Problemista. Photo: Jon Pack/A24

Comedian Julio Torres wears the three big hats on Problemista — star, director, and writer — but he is not pulling this wild narrative out of a hat. It is obvious that the film is a reflection of lived experience. Young artists from elsewhere moving to New York City with innocent stars in their eyes is hardly a new story. But Torres brings a fresh perspective to the usual tale of immigration woes, monster bosses, and rampant nepotism by infusing the fantastical into the painfully realistic. In his rookie effort, Torres proves that he is the type of comedy writer and director who can find humor and ridiculousness anywhere, no matter how mundane or harrowing it may be.

As a child in El Salvador, Alejandro’s (Torres) artist mother (Catalina Saavedra) encouraged his creative dreams. Alejandro has moved to NYC to  set those dreams in motion. His goal: a job as a toy designer at Hasbro. But to make that possible Alejandro must navigate the impossibly difficult American immigration system, a challenge made considerably worse after he loses his job (and thus his work-sponsored visa) as an archivist at a cryogenic freezing facility. The bureaucracy tells him that he has one month to find new sponsorship or he will be deported. His attorney advises him about the hoops-within-hoops he will have to jump through. The fees will be expensive … but he isn’t allowed to work. He obviously needs to find a job … that pays in cash. And he only has a month to secure a new visa.

The wife (Tilda Swinton) of the artist Alejandro was in charge of archiving hires Alejandro as an assistant to help her put on a show of her frozen stiff husband’s art. If everything goes according to plan, Elizabeth will sponsor his work visa. Looks as if things might work out, but there is one glaring issue: Elizabeth is, nicely put, a complete whack job.

“Stop screaming at me!” Elizabeth cries out to anyone who offers her help. As someone who is still early in their career in the entertainment industry and worked as a production assistant through college, I was steeped in anxiety throughout the film. But the character’s unwavering sense of entitlement will undeniably also strike a chord with anyone who has worked with an overweening boss. In the film, Elizabeth is likened to a Hydra — address one issue and two more spring up in its place. Attempt to use reason and logic with her? Forget about it. In the role, Swinton is transformed with a shock of badly dyed red hair and a succession of eccentric ’80s-inspired outfits.

This marks Torres’s debut as a feature film director, but he’s no newcomer to making comedic excellence. He earned an Emmy nomination for his four-year writing tenure on Saturday Night Live and currently serves as co-showrunner and actor on the Fred Armisen–led TV series Los Espookys. He is perfect as Alejandro, a wide-eyed naif who can’t shake an ever-present cowlick and an air of palpable nervousness. Torres and Swinton nail Alejandro and Elizabeth’s toxic relationship, a scorpion and cricket in a bottle. They are polar opposites, but trapped in mutual need: each is battling for acceptance into worlds that won’t let them in.

Problemista makes a powerful case that the immigration system in the United States is deeply flawed. That has become a platitude on both sides of the ideological divide, but understanding what this means to people in real life requires immersing oneself in the process. Torres leavens the nail-biting anxiety — an arduous uphill battle against the US immigration system —  with whimsical tours of Alejandro’s fantastical imagination. His imaginative mind offers a reprieve from the harsh New York City streets. These flights of fancy personify his deep frustrations as he confronts the illogical challenges of an unjust system. In a particularly stunning hallucinogenic sequence, Alejandro navigates a never-ending maze of closed-off rooms: there is no way out. He envisions an ominous space teeming with thousands of hourglasses, each representing the countdown toward the expiration date of an immigrant visa. Time is wasted and wasting away.

Among Alejandro’s problems is the privileged Bingham (James Scully, who played an equally insufferable trust fund baby in Netflix’s You). He’s the son of a very important gallerist; he has been forced to intern for Elizabeth as a punishment for crashing his dad’s car. Bingham doesn’t need or care about this job, certainly not the way Alejandro does. Bingham’s presence is another obstacle blocking Alejandro from reaching what is becoming an improbable dream. Alejandro consults with Craigslist (brought to life by Larry Owens) in his search for under-the-table jobs. He ends up sinking deeper and deeper into the economic underbelly of questionable employment. Yes, these scenes are comically charged surrealist charm, but their resonance with reality is depressing. It’s ridiculous that Alejandro should have to resort to these machinations to stay in this country, but the deadline restraints exerted by his expiring visa are straitjacketing. In Problemista, Julio Torres has managed to make the trauma of the undocumented immigrant, struggling to stay in America, as amusing as it is agonizing.

Alyssa Winn is a recent graduate of Boston University, where she earned her degree in Film & Television. Her passion for film extends to her roles as a director and producer, where she has brought to life a collection of award-winning short films, commercials, and music videos. Her Maslow’s hierarchy of needs includes talking about movies, jazz clubs, exuberant dinner parties, and a commitment to not taking things too seriously.

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