SXSW Review: “Flamin’ Hot” Delightfully Romps Through a Maybe True Story
Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | March 12th, 2023
Flamin’ Hot (Eva Longoria, 2023) 3 out of 4 stars.
Whether or not the story of how Richard Montañez created the Flamin’ Hot® line of Frito-Lay’s Cheetos® contains much, little, or no truth (according to the company, the treat was developed by an executive named Lynne Greenfield), the new film that bears the name of the popular snack is a delicious cinematic romp from start to finish. The feature directorial debut of actress Eva Longoria (Overboard), Flamin’ Hot offers more than just one possible version of how a blockbuster munchie came to be, also serving as a rousing paean to underdogs everywhere, especially be they people of color, and Mexican Americans, specifically. Hungry now? Get ready to crunch down and enjoy (but have a glass of water ready in case the spice overwhelms).
Jesse Garcia (Collisions) stars as Richard, who also serves as narrator. In a playful opening, he taunts us with the secret of his success, only to jump back in time to 1966 and his early childhood with an alcoholic father. Bullied at school for being Mexican, he finds a way to parlay his ethnicity into profits by selling his mother’s burritos to classmates. Unfortunately, that early success leads to arrest when a white cop questions the source of the cash he brings into a local store. Given that society sees him as a criminal, he embraces that life to make the best of it.
Flash forward to the 1970s and, now married to childhood sweetheart Judy (Annie Gonzalez, East of the Mountains), Richard is forced to confront his previous career choice now that child #1 is on the way. Unfortunately, leaving the gangbanger life behind may not be so easy, given the lack of employment opportunities for Chicanos without a high-school diploma. Desperate by the time 1982 rolls around, he jumps at the chance to apply for work at Frito-Lay—courtesy of a rec from another former gang member—even if it means working as a janitor.
Once at the new job, he can’t help but marvel at the way the machines work (as we’ve earlier seen, he has a mechanical mind). Mentored by Clarence (Dennis Haysbert, No Exit), the only Black engineer in the place, he soon gets to know his way around the place. Before long, he not only performs supremely well in his assigned role (winning Employee of the Month) but also learns all the ropes.
Flash forward again to the economic ravages of the Reagan Era and further into the 1990s, and the plant is in trouble, with orders down. Watching a motivational video from PepsiCo (owner of Frito-Lay) CEO Roger Enrico (Tony Shalhoub, Linoleum), Richard decides that he, too, can be a leader, and with the help of Judy and his now two boys, comes up with a plan to save the company by devising a product for the heretofore-untapped Latino market. After much experimentation, they come up with a formula to transform the traditional Cheeto® into something hot hot hot!
There’s a lot more after that, but such is the general rags-to-riches arc of the narrative. Playful throughout—sometimes even excessively so—Flamin’ Hot is pure celebration, with an appropriate amount of family drama thrown in for gravitas. One of its funniest sequences may be a copy of Michael Peña’s great voiceover bit in Ant-Man, but even if not original, it still entertains. The performances are all compelling, too, especially Gonzalez’s, and the inspiration is real. Does it matter where the truth lies? You decide.