SXSW 2023: FLAMIN’ HOT’s Got Heart

An energetic underdog tale

Searchlight Pictures

I’ve never eaten a Flamin’ Hot Cheeto in my life.

But that didn’t stop me from crying my way through Eva Longoria’s Mexican-American underdog tale for the ages. In Flamin’ Hot, Longoria crafts an upbeat, encouraging, humorous, and fairy-tale-esque version of the true life story of Richard Montañez (“I had to kick a little ass to get that ñ”), a janitor-turned-executive at Frito Lay whose incredible story was ripe for feature film adaptation.

Flamin’ Hot aims for entertainment and inspiration (not to mention representation) over subtlety and in doing so crafts a crowd pleasing melodrama that is almost certain to reach a healthy “market share”. At the world premiere here in Austin, TX at the historic Paramount Theater, Longoria and her cast and crew in attendance pointed out their strong desire to not only cast Latin talent on screen, but behind the camera as well. I’m personally in no position to speak to the authenticity of this particular story, but Flamin’ Hot felt to me like it benefitted from that Latin representation and brimmed with authenticity as a result. Stars Jesse Garcia (as Richard Montañez) and Annie Gonzalez (as Judy, Richard’s wife) were unfamiliar to me, but made a huge impression as a formidable couple willing to fight endlessly for their family and future against all odds.

Spanning decades, Flamin’ Hot follows Richard through the poverty of his childhood on a California farm, to his schooling hustling burritos to white kids at lunch, into dabbling in gangbanging, and finally leading to a historic career at Frito Lay. But while Richard’s story is incredibly inspiring, it is one of struggle and perseverance more so than a Cinderella tale. Richard’s future isn’t promised to him and Frito Lay aren’t the instrument of his salvation. The realities of economic downturn and lack of opportunity for our Mexican-American brothers and sisters isn’t shied away from in Flamin’ Hot. The aspects that I do find somewhat challenging to wrestle with are simply the extremely awful realities of a capitalistic system and how Richard’s real life success is unquestionably inspirational, but still feels like an individual triumph in the face of a grinding capitalism that simply does not work for so many.

In order for Richard to succeed, he must overcome almost insurmountable obstacles including an abusive childhood, trusting in a legitimate system that offers little respect and even less certainty that the bills will get paid and the family will get fed, and about a zillion social norms at the factory that do everything they can to keep a janitor in his place. Flamin’ Hot isn’t about a guy with an idea. It’s about a guy who overcomes challenge after challenge for DECADES to eventually see his vision pay off. What exactly is that vision? Montañez is famous for essentially inventing the Flamin’ Hot Cheeto, but perhaps more importantly his story is about listening to markets and representing cultures with products for them. Montañez became a pioneer in cross-cultural marketing, something that there’s still not enough of in our culture, but which was non-existent in his day. It’s unquestioningly inspiring to experience Richard’s story in Flamin’ Hot, and yet, it remains painfully clear just how exceptional his story really is. The odds were against him and with his inspirational wife Judy, a mentor or two, and an endless tenacity, Richard was able to thread the needle of our capitalistic system to better his life and community. Flamin’ Hot does highlight the inequalities baked into our system, but it also has a heightened and humorous feel to it rather than a gritty, grimy exploration of the horrors of a system that grinds up many of the humans in its gears.

But that’s a choice, and a tone, and Flamin’ Hot wisely opts not to strive for subtlety when its central characters are so larger than life. The film feels like a Rocky sequel. Richard is the ultimate underdog; an impossibly likable protagonist like Balboa whose boxing ring happens to be a major corporation whose products are in almost every American home. This is also both a quintessentially American story, and a fundamentally Mexican-American story. Flamin’ Hot has real potential to reach a hungry audience looking for inspiration and desperate to be heard, seen, and given opportunities to forge their own destinies.

And I’m Out.

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