SXSW film review: ‘Flamin’ Hot’ tells how an underdog Latino made it to the top

It’s the tale of how the spicy Cheetos came to be — or at least one man’s version of that story


“Flamin’ Hot,” the story of the creation of the spicy Cheeto, is so full of hokum that you can’t help but roll your eyes. Then again, it’s the kind of hokum that will be quite popular, not only with the target audience of Latinos but also with anyone who enjoys feel-good yarns.

The movie, which premiered at the South by Southwest Film and TV Festival, screened to a packed and enthusiastic house at the Paramount Theatre. Directed by Corpus Christi native Eva Longoria, the movie focuses on Richard Montañez (Jesse Garcia), who detailed the backstory of the spicy snack in his memoir, “A Boy, a Burrito, and a Cookie: From Janitor to Executive.”

In the memoir, he describes his years growing up in East Los Angeles and his descent into gang trouble as a youth, only to turn to serious matters after marrying Judy (Annie Gonzalez) and discovering that she was pregnant.

Without a high school diploma, he applies for a janitorial job at Frito-Lay’s Rancho Cucamonga plant, and he’s persuasive enough to get the job. He works hard, cleaning the machines that make the chips and snacks, and finds a friend in an initially skeptical plant engineer, Clarence C. Baker, played by Dennis Haysbert.

Our hero claims to have come upon the idea for the spicy slurry while eating spicy elotes (roasted corn on the cob) with his youngest son. The son initially winces at the heat, but then proclaims that it’s the good kind of heat.

So, in Montañez’s telling, the quest for a recipe that would fit the Frito-Lay products began. And once he finds the right mix of spices, he then faces a wall of trouble from corporate stiffs.

Only after he surreptitiously contacts the CEO of Frito-Lay, Roger Enrico (Tony Shaloub) does he get a chance to make his big pitch, which is basically that the huge Hispanic market in the United States longs for the flavors of their homes south of the border.

Eventually, Montañez wins the battle and is promoted to head multicultural marketing. So “Flamin’ Hot” is a rags-to-riches tale, with the audience rooting for the underdog throughout the running time of 99 minutes.

Never mind that the story might not be true. A Los Angeles Times investigation indicates that the spicy recipe was a creation of a group of scientists and marketing executives. The script acknowledges that those people were working on a recipe at a Frito-Lay plant in the Midwest at the same time, but it buys into Montañez’s story, which is far more inspirational. And he’s the narrator of the movie, so there’s some wiggle room as far as embellishment is concerned. And then there’s the fact that he really did go from janitor to executive.

In the end, audiences will be satisfied with an uplifting story about the opportunities in the United States. Longoria does a good job of filling the movie with humor and keeps the pacing as hot as the fiery snacks.

The movie has been picked up by Searchlight Pictures for distribution. Expect it in theaters in early June.

Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy is a former movies editor for The Dallas Morning News and Austin American-Statesman.

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