“Do I have initiative?” Richard Montañez (played by Jesse Garcia) asks his wife, Judy (Annie Gonzalez), in the dramatic comedy “Flamin’ Hot,” directed with affectionate brio by the actor Eva Longoria. Montañez, on whose memoir this fictionalized story is based, is eyeing an application for a job at the Frito-Lay facility in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. While he’s stumped about that word — “initiative” — soon enough he’ll embody it, as he goes from being a janitor to becoming a family man behind a Cheetos flavor that extended the snack maker’s reach, launching Montañez’s marketing career.
Garcia and Gonzalez possess poignant chemistry as the economically struggling couple. They first meet as children. He, a child of farm workers, is being bullied in the lunchroom and at home; she has a bruise that suggests they might have more in common than simply being the brown kids at a predominately white elementary school. Montañez’s youth is recounted in a sometimes boastful, sometimes self-deprecating, always upbeat voice-over that softens the edges of his childhood, which include routine bigotry and outright racism, but also brutality and judgment from his father, Vacho (Emilio Rivera).
Montañez came of age in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and the pride and resistance of the Chicano Movement, while adjacent, were not central to his upbringing. Instead, as he tells us in an account that swings from the present to the past, from the biographical to the fantastical, he found friends in a gang. It wasn’t until Judy got pregnant that the pair agreed that things had to change.
From the moment he enters the Frito-Lay facility, Montañez is a dogged learner, asking questions about chemical processes, wondering about an extruder, even celebrating an industrial power washer. His curiosity aggravates his supervisor (Matt Walsh), worries the friend who helped him get the gig (Bobby Soto) and breaks down the defenses of an engineer (Dennis Haysbert) who knows the facility inside out, and who becomes Montañez’s initially suspicious mentor.
The titular flavor, it seems, didn’t happen overnight. Montañez’s stint begins in the mid-70s and takes off in the early ’90s, when the facility faces hard times. An executive, Roger Enrico (Tony Shalhoub), coaches the beleaguered work force to “think like a CEO.” And the ensuing scenes — of Rich landing his hot idea, inspired by the Mexican street corn elote — charm as intended. “It burns good,” the wee-est of the Montañezes (Brice Gonzalez) proclaims as the family samples seasonings.
Longoria, working from a screenplay by Lewis Colick and Linda Yvette Chávez, sprinkles lessons in self-esteem throughout. (The movie is Longoria’s feature directing debut.) And the women here — including Montañez’s mother and Judy — are more than run-of-the-mill catalysts. Still, should it come as a surprise that a movie this puffed up has a dusting of flavors that might not be real? If you read too deeply about the ingredients that went into “Flamin’ Hot,” you might find enough confusion over whether Montañez actually invented the flavor (as claimed) to make your conscience mildly cramp.