We’ve all met someone who seems a little bit crazy. Such characters appear frequently in film and television, and can often feel over-the-top and as if they couldn’t really exist. Portraying someone absurd and excessive can be a challenge, but when someone does it well, it’s mesmerizing. That’s precisely the case with Tilda Swinton‘s turn as a zany art critic in Julio Torres‘ feature directorial debut Problemista, which just premiered at SXSW.
Torres plays Alejandro, a budding but timid toy inventor who desperately wants to work for Hasbro, and has plenty of bizarre ideas for toys meant to educate and toughen up children, taking the emphasis away from just being fun. After a brief stint working at a cryogenic storage facility monitoring the frozen body of a painter named Bobby (RZA), Alejandro finds himself helping out Bobby’s eccentric wife, Elizabeth (Swinton), who is obsessed with cataloging all of his egg paintings and getting them into a show. Alejandro only has one month before he needs a sponsor for his visa, and though Elizabeth hardly seems like the most stable or dependable option, she’s the best shot he’s got at staying in the country.
To describe Elizabeth as a piece of work would be an incredible understatement. She talks incessantly, barely stopping to breathe, let alone allow anyone else to speak, and she frequently asks other people to stop shouting at her even when she is the only one with a raised voice. When she arrives to meet Alejandro at a cafe, she immediately interrupts the waiter while he’s busy with a neighboring table and expresses her impatience. Asked whether she felt she was playing a “Karen,” Swinton rejected the label because she believes that Elizabeth is very much an outsider who isn’t accepted by society even though she often gets what she wants.
Alejandro is also an outsider, though he’s much more sheepish. He walks in a furtive way that’s half-shuffle, half-scoot, and allows him to often go unnoticed by others in the room. Elizabeth, however, does spot him and they’re able to somehow relate to each other, even if Alejandro definitely thinks she’s nuts. Then again, he, too, can understand the concept of not being given a chance, and he’s able to see through Elizabeth’s intimidating exterior and recognize someone who just wants to be listened to and not ignored.
There is a marvelous specificity to this indie comedy and its story elements. Elizabeth demands as a qualification for employment that Alejandro use FileMaker Pro, which he explains to the audience is just a costly and inferior version of Google Sheets. Similar mentions of products and ideas are peppered throughout the film, which offers inventive and striking visuals, as Elizabeth and whoever she’s yelling at are transported to a cave where she takes on the role of a monstrous creature eviscerating its prey.
Best known for the HBO show Los Espookys, Torres has a distinct creative voice that is on full display here. This is a film that’s all about style and allows him to portray an endearing if somewhat strange underdog with an intense uphill battle to fight, both against the system and a “boss” from hell. It’s loaded with laughs, so much so that you may miss some lines as they’re drowned out by audience laughter. Torres is certainly a filmmaker to watch, and Problemista is a singular, wildly original vision that knows exactly how to temper one over-the-top protagonist with her perfect foil.
Problemista had its world premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival.