It’s impossible to know exactly what goes on inside the mind of Julio Torres. Even before making a name for himself as a comedian with his 2019 HBO stand-up special My Favorite Shapes, the Salvadoran-born talent had already made his mark as a writer on Saturday Night Live, where sketches like “Papyrus,” “Wells for Boys,” and “The Sink” spun surrealist, existential premises into viral comedy. For two seasons of HBO’s Los Espookys, the bilingual sitcom he co-created with co-stars Fred Armisen and Ana Fabrega, he again went all in on his own highly particular sensibility, transforming into Andrés, the spoiled heir to a chocolate empire with an outsize ego and a love of the mystical and macabre.
This year, Torres will make his feature directorial debut with Problemista, an out-of-the-box tale loosely inspired by the actor’s own immigration story. Set in New York, the film follows Alejandro (Torres), an aspiring designer of existential children’s toys (think a Slinky that never falls down the stairs, or, well, a well for boys) whose work visa is on the verge of expiring. He soon meets Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), a frantic, fastidious art critic who enlists Alejandro to cement her cryogenically frozen husband’s legacy by mounting an exhibit of his painted portraits of eggs.
It’s an improbable buddy comedy that’s often delightfully untethered from reality, with Torres skewering the American immigration system not by making grand declarations or delivering emotional monologues but by finding the humor in how nonsensical it is. The moment Alejandro finds out his visa will expire, for example, we’re transported to an ominous corridor full of hourglasses just to see an off-screen hand tip over one with his name on it, signaling the start of his race to find a visa sponsor. A few moments later, we watch someone literally disappear when their own last grain of sand falls.
It’s these forays into absurdity that offer up a fresh perspective on immigrant stories, one that feels both original and desperately needed. For years, most on-screen representations of the immigrant experience (to the extent we’ve had any at all) have been dominated by serious explorations of what it means to become American and meditations on the impossible expectations this country places on its newest arrivals. Films like Minari, Under the Same Moon, Brooklyn, and Sugar tell beautiful, important stories of struggle and belonging, but they’re not the only story, and there’s more than one way to tell it.
If any film in the past year has made that abundantly clear, it’s the Daniels’ Academy Award–sweeping Everything Everywhere All at Once. Though Everything Everywhere and Problemista are markedly different, their whimsical, reality-bending approaches don’t undercut the sincerity of their messages. Where Everything Everywhere peppers a giant everything bagel and a raccoon chef into a story about a mother striving and failing to connect to her queer daughter, Problemista sprinkles cryochambers and an omniscient narrator (Isabella Rossellini) into a story about trying to find your place without sacrificing who you are.
In Problemista, Torres pokes fun at his own story, making jokes out of the idea that a young adult from El Salvador moving to one of the most cutthroat cities in one of the most pitiless countries, knowing he’ll need to find a way to make ends meet, would endeavor to be … a toy maker. There’s no real reason why Alejandro’s dream and his ability to pursue it should have any less validity than that of an immigrant who wants to be a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer. (The career prospects for a toy maker are likely to at least be better than those of an aspiring comedian.) And in another twist on the usual stereotypes about immigrant parents, back in El Salvador, Alejandro’s mother (The Maid’s Catalina Saavedra), an artist herself, actually encourages her son’s fantastical temperament.
And the more Alejandro goes along on his journey, the more clear it becomes that he could learn a thing or two from Elizabeth. It’s oddly charming to watch Swinton play someone as thorny as Elizabeth. She’s chaotic, hopeless with technology, and so unwilling to take no for an answer that she’ll happily gaslight any waiter, receptionist, or cable-car operator who gets in her way. For a white woman who seems to have done well in life, she has an attitude that would verge on abrasive, evoking the entitled behavior of a “Karen,” if it weren’t so abundantly clear how much of a misfit she is too.
It’s Elizabeth’s refusal to bend to what society expects of her that prompts Alejandro to realize he can do the same. He shouldn’t have to abandon his creative dream for a more practical one, and he shouldn’t have to suffer through the constant obstacles and contradictions of the immigration system just for a chance at a decent life. None of this needs to be radical either. Alejandro isn’t doing any of this for some grander purpose. His dreams aren’t expressly about providing for his mother or even desiring to “be” American. As with Everything Everywhere actor Ke Huy Quan, who described his own triumph at the Oscars on Sunday night as “the American dream,” they’re just about him seeking the freedom to do what he loves.
In addition to being an imaginative, impressive, not to mention hilarious debut, Problemista reminds us that the immigrant experience isn’t just pain and toil but a story that has room for humor and hope and even some very unconventional Slinkies. More than that, he reminds us that the American dream should belong to anyone, whether they’re an actor, an artist, a toy maker, or a comedian determined to explore his existential crises.