Eva Longoria Directs Strong Story About Cheeto Inventor

SXSW: The film captures the look, feeling and taste of the ’70s and ’80s

Biopics, especially those that err on the side of mainstream and are helmed by a major studio, can and do go wrong. From bad casting to lacking scripts, to directorial faux-pas and even sensational stories that muddle the truth, the world has had its fair share of flawed glimpses into the lives of history’s most compelling people.

Richard Montañez, the man who claims to have invented the “flamin’ hot” Cheeto is one of those people, especially when one takes into account the times his story has been allegedly debunked. But his biopic, aptly titled “Flamin’ Hot,” is far from bad, lacking, or flawed. Eva Longoria’s directorial debut about the power of identity and resilience is too much fun to miss out on in spite of whether or not the real story holds weight.

Jesse Garcia stars as Montañez, a scrappy and charismatic self-proclaimed “vato” from Southern California who pulls himself out of a life of criminal dealings to clean up his act while providing for Judy (Annie Gonzalez), his wife and childhood sweetheart, and their kids. He ends up with a janitor gig at a Frito-Lay factory where he puts in the elbow grease to build connections, learn on the job, and provide for his family amid a tumultuous economy—but a once-in-a-lifetime idea born of his proud Mexican heritage ends up getting him in front of the right people and catapulting him to success.

As the first moments of “Flamin’ Hot” set the scene you’re in for something fast and fun right from the beginning. Garcia’s narration guides the audience through a series of quippy one-liners and glossy, bustling imagery that draws the viewer in as the story starts taking shape. The film gives great historical context to the 1970s and 1980s as they pertain to the Southern Californian Mexican culture while making Montañez’s story feel cinematic and exciting with its pacing and visual stylings. It says a lot about Longoria’s directorial eye, which is undoubtedly strong.

The movie has a clear voice from the opening, and Longoria’s choice to tell the story in a way that makes each beat feel both urgent and exciting is a testament to that. Because of the way she visually shapes and punches up the narrative—with the help of the textual work of co-writers Lewis Colick Linda and Yvette Chávez—you feel compelled to go along with Montañez on the journey of how he got to where he is today.

Along the way, the film immerses you visually with bright colors and retro production and costume design, and auditorily with Spanish slang and catchy music of the era. It goes the extra mile to make the audience feel like Montañez throughout the movie, from when he’s first introduced to the expansive and daunting Frito-Lay factory, to when he first decides to call upon his faith in one of his many times of need, pulling us into his emotional core.

Pushing that sentiment to the max, the film does an incredible job of engaging the audience with beautiful displays of cultural pride, especially as it pertains to food as the focal point of the film. You can almost taste the dishes and snacks on screen, and you can tell they’re made with love by the way they’re shot with precision and interest. Throughout the movie, cinematographer Federico Cantini proves he is as good at shooting delicious treats as he is at framing lively, inherently human shots of the film’s subjects.

A film can look enticing and the script can be well-written, but if the performances are lacking it sends the train barreling off the tracks. “Flamin’ Hot” doesn’t have that problem. Leads Garcia and Gonzalez are incredibly charismatic as people and as a team, and they carry the movie through their characters’ authentic love story.

But Garcia’s Montañez builds other bonds throughout the film. His connection with Frito-Lays factory engineer Clarence (an intimidating yet lovable Dennis Haysbert) feels real and full of layered experience on the part of both characters, as well as the actors themselves and their work. It, too, is a driving force of the movie, and as both characters learn from each other at the hands of persistence, their friendship helps cement the narrative as a story of resilience.

“Flamin’ Hot” is also a story about love and support and how those kindnesses nurture and foster extraordinary things that endure. The movie is as much a love letter to the notion that our identities are our strength and it’s the one “Flamin’ Hot” needs in order to work. Thankfully, the genuine energy of Longoria’s first feature makes for an engaging and empowering watch.

2023-03-11 23:01:09