SXSW Film Review: Flamin' Hot

Director Eva Longoria serves up heartwarming corn and cheese

Brice Gonzalez, Annie Gonzalez, Jesse Garcia and Hunter Jones in FLAMIN' HOT (credit: EMILY ARAGONES/COURTESY SEARCHLIGHT)

Food puns are ahead, so fair warning. The world premiere of Flamin’ Hot, Eva Longoria’s directorial debut, brings to SXSW the touching story of Flamin' Hot Cheetos creator Richard Montañez and his unlikely hero’s journey, as told by a standout cast and crew whose credible perspectives shine through a cloud of spicy cheese dust.

Montañez grew up in a migrant labor camp before struggling through adolescence in the outskirts of 1970s L.A., where he got mixed up in gangs and the criminal justice system. When his beloved young wife, Judy, becomes pregnant, a reformed Montañez lands a janitor gig at Frito Lay’s Rancho Cucamonga plant despite his lack of literacy or diploma. An incredibly hard worker with miles of charm, Montañez has a lightbulb moment: Merging the fiery flavors of his Mexican American pride with an existing large-scale production could tap into a majorly ignored corner of the snack market. Working class woes and a dash of prejudice unfurl along a blurred line of fact and fiction, in typical Hollywood-style.

Longoria and screenwriters Linda Yvette Chavez and Lewis Colick successfully stuff many years into 99 minutes with their well-paced and fun on-screen storytelling tactics. It’s colorful and bright, with deft editing, high-tempo tunes, and tons of cheesy cute one-liners. Lead actors Jesse Garcia (Richard) and Annie Gonzalez (Judy) are lovable and relatable; other character actors add real warmth, including the Allstate Guy, Dennis Haybert, as Montañez’s mentor. More than an origin story of everybody’s favorite bag of chips and its billion-dollar market share, Flamin’ Hot is about the brilliant intersection of perseverance and ingenuity. And the rise of Richard Montañez. The hopeful angle works well, even if the film at times feels like a charming Cheetos commercial.

Probably Frito Lay’s best marketing spot since that weird orange cat, the company’s vintage branding assets land significant screen time and it’s tempting to scour the credit roll for their sponsor thanks. The film’s rose-colored gaze upon the benevolent top C-level officer and his less-friendly team makes “visionaries can’t be contained” pretty cringy, even if the line was delivered by an always excellent Tony Shaloub. Lest we forget, their late 60s “spokesperson” was the Frito Bandito, and in 2021, 80% of the Topeka plant staff (almost 30 years after the hot Cheeto debut) joined a union strike against brutal working conditions.

The flavor might have been better balanced, the earned payoff more sweet, had the movie's real villain been revealed not as Richard’s hard-knocks early years or some rude managers or imposter syndrome - all formidable opponents - but rather the highly-profitable real-world systems strategically designed to keep Richard down. Frito Lay is not a recipe for egalitarianism, but the corny version is a lot more palatable, I guess.

Still, despite those few sharp-edged chips to swallow, it’s a heartwarming movie at the core – it feels good to root for the underdog and win. Flamin’ Hot is both a success story and love story. It's about a devoted husband and wife, an ode to the vibrant richness of Chicano culture, and a great example of much-needed representation in film – both in front of and behind the camera. And yes, next-level cravings were satiated when snack bags of hot Cheetos were handed out upon exit from Saturday's world premiere.

Flamin' Hot

Headliners, World Premiere

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