Home Tech A24’s Problemista is a surreal fairy tale about finding the people who truly see you

A24’s Problemista is a surreal fairy tale about finding the people who truly see you

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Each of comedian Julio Torres’ projects has spoken to his ability to tell stories that are shaped by both his distinct imagination and a deep understanding of the hyperspecific idiosyncrasies that make odd people interesting. In SNL sketches like “Wells For Boys,” and his short-lived HBO series Los Espookys, Torres created windows into absurdist worlds meant to seem like places you might only visit in your dreams. But with A24’s Problemista which he wrote, directed, and stars in — Torres uses his creative powers to paint a picture whose beauty is rooted in how real and emotionally honest it feels.

Inspired by Torres’ own experience immigrating to the US, Problemista tells the story of Alejandro, an aspiring toymaker from El Salvador who travels to America in hopes of fulfilling his dreams of working for Hasbro. As the only child born to artist Dolores (Catalina Saavedra), Alejandro grows up experiencing their small pocket of the world as a magical, vibrant place that nourishes his unique imagination. When a young Alejandro (Logan J. Alarcon-Poucel) wishes for a life-size, castle-like playhouse where he can contemplate his feelings, Dolores uses her talents to make his dream real — not just because she can but also because she wants him to understand that he, too, is capable of transforming ideas into reality. 

Dolores also wants Alejandro to know that she’ll always love him and support his choices, which her dreams tell her will one day lead him to great things. But when the time finally comes for Alejandro to set out on his own, Dolores cannot help but feel like she’s sending him off into a world that isn’t good enough for a soul as sensitive as his.

Through both Katie Byron’s impeccably offbeat production design and voiceover narration from Isabella Rossellini, Problemista clues you into how, more than being a simple chronicle of Alejandro’s journey to America, it’s really a kind of fairy tale about a profoundly sensitive and sheltered man discovering what it means to chase one’s passions.

Getting to New York City and finding a place to stay are important steps on Alejandro’s path to Hasbro, where he hopes his ideas for social-media-obsessed Cabbage Patch Kids and psychologically manipulative Barbies might land him an entry-level gig. Hopes don’t exactly pay the bills, though. And as an immigrant, Alejandro’s ability to stay in the US is contingent upon finding a job willing to sponsor him before his time runs out. It’s necessity more than anything else that leads to Alejandro working at a cryogenics startup specializing in deep-freezing artists like Bobby (RZA) who want to wake up centuries into the future. But it seems to be fate that introduces Alejandro to Bobby’s ferociously belligerent art critic wife Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton) the very same afternoon he’s fired.

While the whimsical atmosphere of playfulness that Problemista leads with never really fades away, it becomes much more unhinged once Elizabeth enters the picture with a proposal for Alejandro to become her newest in a seemingly long line of overworked assistants. In Elizabeth — a living reality distortion field whose fuse is as short as her outfits are loud — Alejando can see a woman in mourning who ultimately wants to be seen and heard more than she actually wants to fight. But shouting is Elizabeth’s default mode, and while most people experience her rageful outbursts as ordinary temper tantrums, Alejandro visualizes them as a series of battles between a bloodthirsty monster and her helpless victims.

Though Problemista’s flights of fancy bring a levity to the film, their strength lies in how powerfully they illustrate the more complex, serious ideas Torres is exploring with his script, like the ways in which the US’s visa system makes it extraordinarily difficult for immigrants to build new lives and thrive in the country. Dealing with Elizabeth and her quest to track down a series of Bobby’s egg-focused paintings is its own kind of hell that would make anyone want to dissociate. But it pales in comparison to the anxiety Alejandro lives with knowing that he’s just days away from being deported.

Even with sympathetic case workers like Khalil (Laith Nakli) rooting for him, without money, there’s no way for Alejandro to escape from the immigration system’s never-ending fees or the overdraft charges that plague his bank account. And the more time Alejandro spends trying to navigate the unfairly designed maze of near-poverty, the more he finds himself turning to the embodiment of Craigslist (Larry Owen) to find extra low-paying side hustles.

Problemista quietly weaves many of its narrative threads together in clever ways — Elizabeth is the cave-dwelling monster who haunts Dolores’ dreams, for example, and the critic’s power to will things into existence (by bullying people) reminds Alejandro of his mother’s knack for translating rough sketches into three-dimensional works of art. 

But the film sometimes feels more like an ensemble of complementary stories rather than a singular narrative (which isn’t necessarily a knock against) because of how much time the film spends with side characters, pulling the focus away from Alejandro. Together, Swinton and Torres are a storm of delightful eccentricities that belie their characters’ shared yet distinct emotional vulnerabilities. As Alejandro and Elizabeth grow closer, Problemista’s forays into the absurd become even more intense and fantastical to emphasize how they represent the truth of what something is. 

Those truths are often so terrifying that people don’t want to see them. But Problemista emphasizes how healing it can be to confront them through art and by trying to build meaningful connections with others even when the task seems impossible.

Problemista also stars Greta Lee, Spike Einbinder, Kelly McCormack, Megan Stalter, Charlene Incarnate, Martine Gutierrez, and Carlos E. Navedo. The film hits theaters nationwide on March 22nd.

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