'Problemista' Solves the World's Ills with Empathy and Cross-Generational Cooperation

Starring Julio Torres, Tilda Swinton, RZA

Photo courtesy of VVS Films

BY Josh KorngutPublished Mar 22, 2024


Julio Torres, known for his distinctive narrative style as a Saturday Night Live writer and the creator of adored series Los Espookys on HBO, now brings his unique approach to his feature directorial debut, Problemista. This heartwarming and innovative film, in which Torres portrays a character haunted not by a tangible monster but by the elusive nature of the American dream, delivers a refreshing departure from conventional storytelling. The film's wholesome and compassionate approach defies expectations, making it a truly compelling watch.

The story concerns Alejandro (Torres), a young aspiring toy designer from El Salvador who lives in the messy trenches of New York City without much more than a dream and his backpack. The world of Problemista casually dabbles in magical realism, and the stakes of maintaining his work visa elevate to the threat of being actually erased from existence. When Alejandro loses his bizarre day job as an assistant at a cryogenic freezing lab, he must quickly find a new sponsorship to stay grounded on Earth.

Enter Elizabeth, a middle-aged art critic played with tragic freneticism by the reliably excellent Tilda Swinton. Alejandro stands in stark contrast to Elizabeth, in large part due to the sweet introspection Torres uses to portray his character. Elizabeth's refusal to adapt to modern technology and obsession with an out-of-date spreadsheet program create a desperate opposition to Alejandro's hopeful and adaptable nature. This dynamic duo's journey through an unforgiving city plays out as a series of erratic adventures that will keep audiences on the edge of their seats.

The film weaves a tapestry of light fantasy, using visual art to contrast with the mundane reality of living in a tiny apartment with countless roommates. Growing up, Alejandro's artist mother surrounded him with beauty and the power of imagination, fostering his passion for design and play. The art plays a significant filmic role as well, with whimsical portraits of eggs and bizarre free-standing installations that gain more and more value as the story unfolds. Visual art and design create a playful, inventive, and colourful adventure that mirrors the vibrant world within Alejandro's mind.

Problemista emerges as a feel-good movie, and it does so by finding its unique path by employing unexpected character investigation. Torres and Swinton are a millennial/boomer odd couple with a strange and satisfying dynamic to behold. They have nothing in common and, more often than not, we expect the mousy Alejandro to detest Elizabeth's ongoing belligerent sense of entitlement. But just as he can show her the benefits of patience and empathy, she has lessons to teach him about the value of taking up space and forging his own path.

The value of this odd couple coming together through heart-racing conflict and emotional desperation is significant. In an age where generations seem to disdain each other as much as they ever have, Problemista's exploration of cross-generational relationships prevails as timely and poignant — a refreshing reminder that we can learn and help each other through the madness, if we only take the time to try. Although, this sentiment does lead to occasional bouts of syrupy cliché, it's never overwhelming.

Ultimately, Problemista delivers an inspiring journey that underscores the importance of compassion, empathy and carving out a space for oneself when no one else will. Yes, this may lead to some overly-sincere moments, but the film's inventive use of art and fantasy raises it to a level where such concerns become insignificant. This film rightfully takes its place alongside Marcel the Shell with Shoes On in the A24 library — a corner of cinema I hold dear.

(VVS Films)

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