Obviously, “Self Reliance” is about a lonely man learning about the power of connection. But Johnson isn’t confident with his themes or plotting to realize the many ideas swirling around this odd duck of a thriller/comedy. After the strong set-up, “Self Reliance” just doesn’t have enough actual tension or humor to carry it from day to day in Tommy’s journey. When it has the chance to go there in terms of dark subject matter like the potential that none of this is happening and Tommy is suffering a breakdown, it feels like Johnson is scared of getting real. I have always liked Johnson as an actor, and I think he has skills as a writer and director. I just wish he had put this in a drawer for a few years and returned to it after a couple more projects. He might have relied on himself a bit too much here.
Finally, there’s the aggressively crowd-pleasing “Flamin’ Hot.” Directed by Eva Longoria, it’s about the true story of Richard Montañez, a man who rose from the janitor’s office at Frito-Lay to an executive audience after (allegedly) developing the hot line of products for snacks like Cheetos. Flamin’ Hot Cheetos have become a phenomenon, especially with young people and underserved communities, so it’s interesting to see how a different perspective—a non-white one—altered a major business like Frito-Lay. The problem here isn’t the subject matter as much as the execution. This film has SO many speeches about the cultural importance of what’s happening that I half expected to see a flashing “Applause” sign in the corner of the screen after a while. The audience at SXSW did applaud roughly 25 times, so this is a crowdpleaser that pleases. But it’s depressingly unambitious, too content to skim the surface of its characters and story in a manipulative and even dishonest manner. It’s too superficial to pack any heat at all.
Jesse Garcia stars as Montañez, narrating his life story as a hustler from a young age, selling burritos to the racist kids who threatened to beat him up in elementary school. After marrying his high school sweetheart Judy (movie MVP Annie Gonzalez, who gives the film emotional depth that’s more truthful than the rest), Richard decides to leave gang life behind to care for his growing family. He gets a janitor job at Frito-Lay, where he’s fascinated by the process of making potato chips, Cheetos, and Doritos, learning from a long-time technician played with appropriate gravitas by Dennis Haysbert. He discovers that the snack company isn’t targeting his people, a culture that demands a little more kick with their salty treats, and he endeavors to take his idea for spicy chips to the head honcho, played by Tony Shalhoub.