Be the Alien: On Julio Torres’s “Problemista”

Enzo Escober reviews Julio Torres’s body of work, but most of all, his debut feature, “Problemista.”

Be the Alien: On Julio Torres’s “Problemista”

JULIO TORRES, PRECIOUS as an eyelash, faced his audience like a self-serious child. “I’m a terrible speller,” he confessed to the packed room at the Bell House, a comedy club in Brooklyn. “And sometimes I think that when I’m writing an email and there’s typos, I assume that the person receiving the email … they probably think, oh, English is his second language, so he’s bound to make a lot of mistakes … but that’s not what’s going on.” Then came the elaborate punch line, as surreal as it was sincere:

What’s going on is I hear the letters so clearly and I feel their individual needs and preferences. Like, I know how to spell bureaucracy. But when I say, “Places, places,” they all scatter, and they all end up saying, “Oh, can I be next to my friend?” “Can I sit here?” … So no, my spelling of bureaucracy might not be correct, but it is the spelling that my actors want.

The joke was classic Torres, a flash tour through the hallmarks of his haute whimsy. A cult comedian, he is obsessed with interrogating the innocuous, as attentive to the inner lives of objects, colors, and letters as he is to tension and timing. Yet this bit also held a covert political treatise. The immigrant’s faulty English cannot be attributed to his origins. Instead, it connotes a singular essence, one that declines the boilerplate narrative of foreignness in favor of searing specificity. This is Torres’s superpower. By exhibiting the whorled candy land of his mind, where letters shriek out their allegiances, shapes have personalities, and the world’s strictures simply do not exist, he asserts a presence so boldly drawn that it distances itself far beyond the clutches of rote legalese and cultural cliché.

Torres’s debut film, Problemista, which he wrote, directed, and starred in, is about the inadequacy of such language, its doomed encounter with full-spectrum personhood. It is partly autofiction: Torres plays Alejandro, an immigrant from El Salvador who, like him, left home to pursue the life of a New York artist. In what feels like a viable alternate reality for Torres, Alejandro is committed to the craft of toy-making. He has his eyes on Hasbro’s talent incubation program, but the application form offers no option for noncitizens.

The toys he keeps pitching the company, moreover, comically undermine their prescribed roles: a Slinky that refuses to go down the stairs; a snake nut can who sheepishly apologizes for causing a start; a Barbie with her fingers crossed behind her back, suggesting that the DreamHouse is a den of cunning and brutality. In Torres’s hands, these all-American inventions are torqued past recognition, rendered eccentric and aberrant, perhaps even that most un-American thing of all—unsellable.

The idea that objects might dare to rally against their appointed functions has compelled Torres before. His 2022 children’s book, I Want to Be a Vase, follows a toilet plunger who stretches toward aesthetic worth (“As a vase I would be a vessel for beauty,” the plunger soliloquizes. “A window into a dazzling world one can only dream of.”) In his 2019 HBO special, My Favorite Shapes, Torres tells the story of a clam who, after misrepresenting himself at a job interview as an oyster, is flummoxed at his assignment to submit a pearl by the end of the day. By and large, Torres’s things—his “actors,” as he calls them—aspire to create their own selfhood. Whether or not they are rewarded is beside the point.

At the beginning of Problemista, Alejandro has not yet learned to fully embrace his difference. The city has turned him desperate, his visa is expiring, and he isn’t getting any creative work. To his detriment, he is incapable of playing the assimilationist—he is far too strange to try. We are made privy to Alejandro’s inner world, which he tends as a gardener to an orchid, and the excursions are always a pleasure. His mind unfurls before us in dreamy pastels and ambient synths, a rejoinder to the banality of the world around him.

The sight of Alejandro grappling with the knotty visa process—imagined by him as a closed maze of cubes with no way out—gives us the most indelible satire of the American immigration complex in recent memory. In a society with a value system organized through categorization, conformity, and the policing of difference, glaring individualism can be a liability. In order to make it in the United States, Alejandro will either need to negotiate this incompatibility or challenge it head-on.

The catalyst for this reckoning arrives in the form of Tilda Swinton’s Elizabeth, a fist-shaking, Issey Miyake–wearing art critic whose terminally ill husband is frozen at the cryogenic facility where Alejandro works. When he accidentally unplugs a patient-holding pod and gets fired, he agrees to become her assistant, and she promises to sponsor his visa. A crazed composite of the people Torres worked for before his big break as a writer on Saturday Night Live, Elizabeth is a terror, a Manhattan gorgon who makes meals out of waiters and call center agents. “I am very attracted to difficult people,” Torres told NPR in March. “I don’t see difficult people as nightmares to escape.”

Swinton’s character is not, as several reviews have it, written as an entitled “Karen” but, rather, as a deeply flawed model for defiant singularity. The film does not entirely excuse her rudeness; still, Elizabeth becomes a revelation for Alejandro. “You won’t get anywhere in life if you’re hoping for answers from an entity,” she tells him about his Hasbro application, though she could easily be talking about the US government. Faced with the faux-helpfulness of AI tech support, she insists on bypassing bureaucracy. “None of those options,” she says into her phone. “Other. Human.” It is an appeal to be seen, one made on the principle of conserving her jagged dignity, whatever the cost.

There are those who flee hardship and those who seek it out. Problemista is about the latter sort of immigrant. “[T]he thing about me and the character that I play in this movie is that it wasn’t really the story of someone escaping for survival,” Torres said to NPR. “It’s the story of someone just escaping or leaving for a greater ambition, to find himself.” Alejandro is from a decidedly middle-class family in El Salvador—scenes of him on the phone with his mother juxtapose his bleak Bushwick apartment with a verdant, artfully decorated property back home. Torres, who has described his childhood as a happy, secure one, has elected to write what he knows. His hero is one pledged to the onward motion of his own drama, enamored by the kinds of trials that alchemize experience into adventure. “[A] problemista is someone who is attracted to problems or thrives within problems,” he told NPR, in what reads like a concise appraisal of anyone mad enough to move here for their art.

Taut perspective begets specificity, the latter a privilege that immigrant artists are rarely afforded in American cinema. There were moments at which Problemista jolted me with its fidelity to firsthand experience. I came to this country from the Philippines three years ago to be a writer. Staying in Manila would have made for a more materially comfortable life, New York not being vaunted for its cheapness. But I moved anyway, chose to be made suddenly liminal, because I knew that my romance with the city would be symbiotic; I would take all that it gave me, and I would enrich it in return. Ease was never something I expected.

In Problemista, I recognized the bizarre craigslist gigs, the arguments with inconsiderate banks, the hourglass that marks the time each immigrant has before their visa expires and they vanish into thin air. In short, I recognized the precarity of a life put on probation. Next year, my authorization to work here will end, and like Torres before me, I will be applying for the O-1 Visa, where creative output becomes a metric for residence in the United States. Until then, each article I publish doubles as a plea for admission. This one is no exception. Everything must be done exactly right. The O-1 is only awarded to “Aliens of Extraordinary Ability.”

That verbiage has always held a special intrigue for me. Alien, a life-form that eludes taxonomy, dissolves in one frank gesture the binary that fails to accommodate it. Torres has always had an affinity for the creaturely. Embedded in his persona is the coy insinuation that he is not quite of this world. This is where he and one of his contemporaries, the writer and actress Jenny Slate, diverge. Though Slate’s creation, Marcel the Shell, may have an extraterrestrial charm, he does not aspire to complicate the world he finds himself in, which is small and prosaic. Torres, meanwhile, leans into fantasy. In his bilingual HBO series Los Espookys (2019–22), still his best work to date, he plays a clairvoyant who can speak to the moon. In My Favorite Shapes, he is a holographic emissary, teleporting onstage from another dimension. On Instagram, his handle is @spaceprincejulio.

If the American government thrives on formalized identity, perhaps there is a way to think of the alien as its most radical foil. It is, after all, a being whose power consists in its otherness. Though its travel through space might be construed as a threat, it eludes confinement to all earthly paradigms of knowledge. This allows it to flout the projections of its distant observer, whose shallow attempts to essentialize the alien only affirm its rich, fathomless interiority. Moreover, the alien feels no shame for its difference. The very notion of alienness is alien to it, and far beneath its concerns. It is too hungry for this world, moving with limbs impervious to our particular strain of gravity. I warm to this notion the more I mull it over, here in my own Bushwick apartment. I think about that first day three years ago, January at JFK, the airplane depositing me on new land like a UFO.


There was once a woman of society, a great hostess, who loved her silverware like her own children. Each time she entertained, she felt the agony of the ladle as it was plunged into the boiling soup, flinched at the screams of the cutlery as they were gnawed by the fangs of her guests. One evening, filled with the cacophony of a suffering populace, she descended into madness.

This scene, a gothic marriage between Beauty and the Beast and Darren Aronofsky, was written by Torres as a potential Saturday Night Live sketch, four weeks into his job there. The guest host of that episode was Emma Stone. They did a table read; Torres instructed her to channel Nicole Kidman in Birth (2004). Ultimately, the sketch never made it to production, as the producers questioned whether it was even comedy. Instead, Stone became the muse for two other Torres bits. One was the now-beloved “Wells for Boys,” a fake advertisement for a Fisher-Price wishing well that “sensitive boys” averse to rough play might find solace in. The other was “The Actress,” in which Stone plays an aspiring thespian who, after getting cast in a gay porno as the woman who gets cheated on, goes far too method with her role.

These sketches are all preoccupied with the other side of the narrative line, that unmapped region governed by alternative points of view. Torres’s characters have minds that exist at odds with the world; they experience the ornate tapestry of life in ways their peers do not. In this sense, he is a studious advocate of not just the alien subject but also the alien consciousness. We know from Problemista’s first scene that Alejandro’s sensibility is what makes him special, but it’s also what will complicate his journey. Deeply aware of this, his mother takes pains to keep him safely close; childhood doesn’t seem to end in her enchanted limbo. When Alejandro leaves, she worries that she has released him into a reality he is too delicate for.

But there are those of us who cannot find sanctuary in the places we come from. Torres, a queer atheist from a predominantly Catholic country, has spoken about how he doesn’t feel entirely accepted in El Salvador. Some aliens are aliens wherever they go. Home, then, becomes a matter of active choosing, one that demands a magical faith in the worth of the future. ​​“Your approach to comedy, it might be absurdist,” Stone, who also produced Problemista, told Torres on a recent episode of The A24 Podcast. “But you have to believe it with your whole heart, and it has to be life or death.” When Elizabeth’s husband, Bobby (RZA), enters his cryogenic pod, we see him being beamed through a kaleidoscopic space tunnel into the unknown. It is an image consonant with Alejandro’s decision to migrate: nothing is certain, and yet the prospect of a life lived on one’s own terms overrides every conceivable risk.

Alejandro comes into his own at the film’s end, when his visa expiry looms and the resolve to stay in the United States fully besieges him. In an erratic move, Elizabeth decides to join her husband in icy stasis, leaving Alejandro to fend for himself. Before drinking the solution that will freeze her organs, she leaves him a voice memo: when they tell you that left and right are the only directions, go up. “It is everything or everything,” she reminds him, before giving him one more challenge. He is to confront a Hasbro executive who implemented one of his toy pitches without permission—Cabbage Patch dolls with smartphones that offer a window into their social lives. “Go and inform him that you work there now,” Elizabeth says, and goes to sleep.

As his hourglass finally empties, Alejandro is galvanized by this call to self-determination. Face-to-face with the nonplussed Hasbro man, he discovers that the rules of reality are soft to him; he can bend them because he is not their subject. In Problemista’s most triumphant moment, Alejandro convinces the executive to create an “Other” option in the online application form so people from outside the US can apply. Torres resolves the conflict here, on this assertion of otherness, to frame the thesis of his debut film—that the alien needn’t accept the boxes on the form. “I was really raised with the motto ‘If it doesn’t exist, make it,’ or ‘If it doesn’t exist, don’t settle for the things that do exist,’” he said in an interview with MUBI. “That is not only such a big part of the way that I operate visually, but also the core of this movie: if you are presented with options A, B, and C, but you want D, or some secret, unlisted option, make it.”

The trailer of Problemista is scored to Frank Sinatra’s cover of “New York, New York,” a song about a city that, at its best, feels like a monument to self-creation. Another Sinatra pick could have been “My Way.” It is the anthem of outsiders, originals, those odd birds who fly their nests in search of promise on other planets—the more difficult the better.

LARB Contributor

Enzo Escober is a writer, critic, and co-host of Diva Discourse, a podcast about Beyoncé. He was born and raised in Manila, Philippines, and graduated from New York University’s cultural reporting and criticism program in 2022. He lives in Brooklyn.


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