SXSW 2023: Flamin’ Hot Movie Review

SXSW Film Festival Headliners Section

Reviewed for by Abe Friedtanzer

Director: Eva Longoria

Writer: Linda Yvette Chávez and Lewis Colick

Cast: Jesse Garcia, Annie Gonzalez, Dennis Haysbert, Emilio Rivera, Tony Shalhoub, Matt Walsh, Pepe Serna, Bobby Soto, Jimmy Gonzales and Brice Gonzalez

Screened at: Critics Screening Link, 3/18/23

Being able to channel their heritage and upbringing into the corporate workforce that has long shunned their values, beliefs and overall identities is a courageous journey for anyone who’s determined to be seen by society. That’s certainly true for successful Mexican-American businessman Richard Montañez, whose life is chronicled in the endearing new biographical comedy-drama, ‘Flamin’ Hot.’

The movie passionately chronicles how Montañez overcame his humble childhood living in a migrant labor camp in Los Angeles to become a janitor, and later a machinist operator, for Frito-Lay at its Rancho Cucamonga factory in the mid-1970s. He later experienced staggering rise to fame, and become valued by not only the snack company but also the entire world, when he invented the titular Flamin’ Hot Cheetos in the late ’80s.

Eva Longoria made her feature film directorial debut on ‘Flamin’ Hot,’ which was written by Linda Yvette Chávez and Lewis Colick. The biopic is based on Montañez’s 2013 memoir, ‘A Boy, A Burrito and A Cookie: from Janitor to Executive,’ as well as stories he and his wife, Judy, shared with the filmmakers.

‘Flamin’ Hot’ chronicles Richard’s (played by Jesse Garcia) life, starting from the time he struggled to fit in with his classmates at a young age in school, where he met Judy, his eventual wife and mother of his three sons. After deciding to leave the migrant labor camp as a teenager, he struggled to make ends meet after he and Judy (Annie Gonzalez) married and had their first child.

Determined not to continue leading his life as a criminal, Richard seeks the help of his best friend Tony (Bobby Soto) to secure a job as a janitor at Frito-Lay’s Rancho Cucamonga plant. Over time, he worked his way up to head of Multicultural marketing.

While working at the plant, Richard meets Clarence (Dennis Haysbert), a hard-working engineer who keeps the factory machinery functioning. Richard takes an interest in the mechanics, and asks Clarence to teach him how everything works. After initial hesitation, Clarence ultimately decides to show Richard how the snacks are made.

While working at Frito-Lay for more than a decade, and frequently being dismissed by the factory’s self-absorbed manager (Matt Walsh), Richard has a revelation that promises to change his – and the company’s – futures forever. He realizes that Cheetos would appeal more to the Latino market by adding chili seasoning.

Using his wife and kids, as eventually his friends and their entire community, as a focus group, Richard experiments with a wide variety of chili powders until he finds just the right mixture.

But bringing his new recipe to the attention of Frito-Lay CEO Roger Enrico (Tony Shalhoub) provides another problem. Inspired by a motivational workplace video that Enrico made, Richard takes the bold step of calling the executive directly and pitching him his idea, despite the possibility of being fired.

Intrigued by the pitch, Enrico tells Richard to prepare a presentation. While not versed in marketing, Richard manages to convince the CEO to try the idea of testing Flamin’ Hot Cheetos in the market, due to his enthusiasm about the product. With the help of the local Hispanic community, the product quickly begins a popular staple in the Frito-Lay brand of chips.

Colick and Chavez’s thorough research into Montañez’s job and family powerfully shines through in the smart, uplifting and humorous chronicling of his life journey throughout the movie’s script. Under Longoria’s humanizing helming style, the scribes’ explanation into how Montañez overcame life-long struggle and ultimately triumphed by creating Flamin’ Hot Cheetos powerfully plays out throughout the ‘Flamin’ Hot’s 98-minute runtime.

Garcia was perfectly cast as Montañez, as the actor fully developed and humanized the protagonist. Despite the challenges Montañez faced throughout his career, including many of his colleagues disregarding his abilities and potential because of his nationality, the actor naturally emphasized his character’s unwavering determination to achieve his goals.

Throughout the comedy-drama, Garcia also maintains a strong connection with Gonzalez as they showcase how Richard and Judy have a lighthearted and tender relationship. The actress emphasizes how supportive of a wife she is to her husband by stopping at nothing to help him realize his dreams. Overall, the characters infuse the film with an authentic-feeling depiction of the members of the Latino community’s dedication and determination to achieving their goals.

‘Flamin’ Hot’ captures and holds its viewers’ attention by highlighting the most imporant moments in Montañez’s life that helped him succeed throughout his career. The final version of the film intriguingly emphasize him not only developing the titular snacks, but also convincing Enrico and his fellow executives at Frito-Lay to sell the products.

Longoria worked with the biopic’s crew, particularly cinematographer Federico Cantini  and editors,Kayla Emter and Liza D. Espinas, to create inventive ways to keep the plot seamlessly moving throughout the story. One memorable sequence spans eight years while panning throughout the Frito-Lay factory floor.

Another standout, perfectly executed scene occurs after Richard sells extra burritos his mother made to his classmates. But before he could spend the profits, he was arrested by a suspicious white police officer. The story cuts forward more than a decade to Richard and Judy running from other police officers who are also pursuing them.

The movie passionately chronicles how Montañez overcame his humble childhood to become one of Frito-Lay’s most vital employees. Through a fully developed, humorous and engaging script from Chávez and Colick, stellar, heartfelt performance by Garcia as Montañez, Longoria’s expert directorial style and inventive visual style, ‘Flamin’ Hot’ is a biopic that shouldn’t be missed.

98 minutes

Story: B

Acting: B+

Technical: B+

Overall: B+

Caption: (From: L-R) Brice Gonzalez, Annie Gonzalez, Jesse Garcia and Hunter Jones in ‘Flamin’ Hot.’ Credit: Emily Aragones/Courtesy Searchlight

Fun Film Fact: ‘Flamin’ Hot’ had its World Premiere at this year’s SXSW, where it won the Audience Award in the Headliner Screening Section. The biopic will be the first scripted feature to stream on both Hulu and Disney+ in the U.S. simultaneously when it debuts on June 9, 2023.

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