Underdog stories are a reliable go-to for filmmakers, as there is something universal about beating the odds and rising above someone’s supposed station in life. While typically associated with sports stories, the underdog arc can be especially potent when it’s an individual rising above the system to become more than anyone thought they could be.
Flamin’ Hot is an especially successful version of this story, centering on Richard Montañez (Jesse Garcia), a Mexican-American man trying to escape his rough past in the Los Angeles area. He and his wife, Judy (Annie Gonzalez), both struggle to find work until Richard is hired to work as a janitor at the nearby Frito-Lay factory.
Richard soon proves himself to be an extremely hard worker, as well as an insatiable learner, bugging various higher-ups, including Clarence Baker (Dennis Haysbert), about everything that goes into making the brand’s snacks. Noticing a lack of flavors that would appeal to Hispanic people, Richard takes it upon himself to create a spicy flavor, one which would go on to become a cornerstone of the company.
Directed by Eva Longoria in her feature debut and written by Lewis Colick and Linda Yvette Chávez, the story is irresistible – even if it may not actually be true. If you’re willing to suspend a little disbelief, the film works like a charm, as Richard is a compelling character whose drive and easygoing nature make him someone for whom it’s easy to root.
Subtle but effective scenes dealing with racism and classism reinforce the uphill climb he faced toward success.
Richard is almost relentlessly positive, able to withstand slights in a manner that few others would be able to do. To accomplish this, Longoria and her team employ a lot of humor, sometimes in straight-up funny situations and other times to defuse the tension built up from a particular confrontation. Richard is also complemented extremely well by Judy, who brings her own energy to make their struggles seem less daunting.
Even if you weren’t aware of the dispute of Richard’s claims, it’s clear that the film is meant to be a type of fairy tale, one that gives Latinos a showcase they don’t often get. While the film is family-friendly, Longoria doesn’t avoid unsavory topics like Richard being abused as a child or dealing drugs in his younger days. The difference is that the characters are shown as three-dimensional humans, ones who are capable of good and bad things.
Both Garcia and Gonzalez are getting their biggest roles to date, and each does a fantastic job. Garcia is in 95 percent of the scenes, and he carries the film as if he’s been a longtime star. Gonzalez is equally impressive, playing the supportive wife in a way that doesn’t diminish her own performance. Haysbert, Tony Shalhoub, Matt Walsh, and others turn in great supporting roles.
Flamin’ Hot is full of all the right elements that make for a rousing underdog story. With great performances, a solid combination of drama and comedy, and a brand that’s instantly recognizable, it’s a feel-good film that earns its spicy stripes.
Flamin' Hot is now streaming on Hulu and Disney+.