There’s a moment in the forthcoming movie Flamin’ Hot when someone grabs a bottle of Tapatío and douses it on a plate of spaghetti. It’s a small moment, one you’d miss if your eyes weren’t completely glued to the screen, but it isn’t just a minute detail. Instead, it’s a specific action nodding to Mexican American dining culture.
The biopic, which is Texan actor Eva Longoria’s debut as a feature film director, is about Richard Montañez (Jesse Garcia), a child of immigrants who grew up in a migrant labor camp and would one day become the man who (controversially) claims to have invented the Flamin’ Hot Cheeto. But it’s also a love letter to Mexican Americans. One of the ways Longoria hones in on building an organic world is through food, and things like a character nonchalantly throwing hot sauce on well, anything he sees fit, is integral to her vision.
“We do that. Mexicans do that. We put Tapatío on everything basically,’” Longoria said ahead of the film’s premiere during a Q&A session with the Hollywood Reporter’s Mia Galuppo during South By Southwest (SXSW). As the two talked, a word that came up frequently was “authenticity,” which Longoria said was her “north star” during filming. “There were all these little cultural specificities that I think only we would know [as Mexican Americans].”
The movie, set to release this summer, is likely to fill homes with knowing applause and laughter as it did during its world premiere at SXSW. The Los Angeles Times’ lengthy investigation on Montañez’s claim he invented the Flamin’ Hot Cheeto and PepsiCo’s statements affirming its support of Montañez and his 40 years with the company, but tepidly dancing around the subject, likely won’t have any bearing on how much people enjoy this film, which won SXSW’s audience award in the headliners section. As of now, the plans are to stream the film on Hulu and Disney+ on June 9, which is a shame because Flamin’ Hot is built for theaters. Regardless, audiences are likely to do the Rick Dalton meme in real-time, no matter where they’re sitting — proving Longoria’s feature-length debut a success.
In one scene that illustrates the relatable “lunchbox moment” many children of immigrants experience, white classmates tease a young Montañez about his “nasty” bean burritos, until one kid — prompted on a dare — takes a bite. He quickly turns the word-of-mouth craze into an enterprise, selling burritos all over campus and earning himself a big wad of cash. Later on, his wife Judy (played by Annie Gonzalez), demonstrates her entrepreneurial spirit too, selling fresh tortillas on the street.
When the Montañez family comes up with a little more money than they usually have thanks to Judy’s ingenuity, she excitedly buys the name-brand Corn Flakes for a change — a rare splurge on the good stuff that many low-income families can relate to. There are moments when characters casually eat quesadillas, elotes, mangonadas, and, of course, tacos. What would this movie be without tacos?
In a sequence where the family searches for the perfect recipe for a spicy chip to cater to Mexican Americans in Los Angeles, they gather around the kitchen table and experiment with different dried peppers and spices. Some of these combinations fail spectacularly, but one didn’t. When Montañez’s son Steven (Brice Gonzalez), takes a bite of one recipe, he wails just a little bit and declares that these chips are hot. Montañez asks if it’s a bad burn or if it burns good. The kid takes another chip, bites down on it, and says through a smile, “It burns goooooood.”
It’s a scene that encompasses the heart of the movie: a Mexican American family living in a house that appears truly lived in, wearing clothing that looks like they were grabbed out of someone’s personal storage closet, and speaking in real Angeleno dialect. But what brings that all together is the food. The saying goes that the quickest way to someone’s heart is through their stomach, so it’s a no-brainer that the film would use Mexican American cuisine to wink and nod at its knowing audience, earning the adulation of people who know exactly what it means for something to burn good.