Crystal Fairy & the Magic Cactus and 2012: Sundance Review

A sometimes amusing trifle about the mescaline-fueled antics of four guys and a girl in Chile.

Sebastian Silva's drug-fueled romp stars Michael Cera on an ill-begotten quest into the Chilian desert.

Watching a bunch of people take a drug trip is seldom either entertaining or edifying, but Chilean director Sebastian Silva manages to make it at least tolerably amusing in the aptly titled Crystal Fairy & the Magic Cactus and 2012. More a long anecdote than a deeply worked-out story, this is one of two collaborations between Silva and actor Michael Cera at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the other being the Midnight entry Magic Magic. The actor’s name will probably result in some kind of U.S. release for this odd little number, which was one of four opening night features at Sundance 2013, but commercial prospects are minor.

Rooted in an experience Silva had a decade back, this largely improvised, vigorously filmed odyssey hinges on five acquaintances who, at a drug-fueled party in Santiago, decide to travel north to find the legendary San Pedro cactus that yields the mescaline celebrated by Aldous Huxley in The Doors of Perception.

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The driving force behind the trek is oddball American Jamie (Cera), an obsessive without manners, regard for others or even anything interesting to say. But the fact that he’s got more drive and sense of purpose than his Chilean pals (played by the director’s brothers Juan Andres, Jose Miguel and Agustin Silva) at least gets them on the road, where they are accompanied by a spacey young American named Crystal Fairy (Gaby Hoffmann), a hippie born forty years too late.

Distractingly resembling Harpo Marx with his unruly mop of hair and gleeful look in his eyes, Jamie, who is often derisively called “Pollo” by his companions, takes them to San Pedro, where lively humor ensues from their frustrated efforts to convince locals to part with any bit of the revered cactus growing in their gardens. At length, Jamie solves this problem and they continue to an isolated beach, where an all-day head trip awaits.

The guys mostly stumble, splash and goof around in a manner that no doubt would have embarrassed Huxley. Interest and focus thus shift over to Crystal, who quite spontaneously gets naked, ill-advisedly wanders around the desert and tries to climb rocks. That night, sitting around a bonfire after the drug’s effects have mostly worn off, she lets loose with a painful personal revelation that serves to awaken a compassionate streak in Jamie he might never have known he had.

A more calculating commercial director could have ramped up such material’s comic component tenfold, especially by expanding the roles of the three brothers; Silva’s greatest failing lies in having declined to provide his brothers with distinct characters or anything worthwhile to do, so they all remain ciphers.

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Cera’s Jamie is deliberately annoying for much of the time and scarcely likeable, although the final impression is that some improvement is possible for the young man. Hoffmann’s Crystal is a distinctive creation, a seeker who might not be that bright either but whose dedication to the search cannot be questioned. It’s a self-effacing, pretty out-there performance.

The director shot this in 12 days and it looks it, but considerable care has gone into the editing and particularly the soundtrack, which is loaded with a crazy-quilt of sounds and songs. The film is both more carefree and more ragged than Silva’s previous two features, The Maid, which won the world cinema dramatic jury prize at Sundance in 2009, and Old Cats, which played the festival two years later.

Production: Fabula, Diroriro (Chile)

Cast: Michael Cera, Gaby Hoffmann, Juan Andres Silva, Jose Miguel Silva, Agustin Silva

Director: Sebastian Silva

Screenwriter: Sebastian Silva

Producers: Juan de Dios Larrain, Pablo Larrain

Director of photography: Cristian Petit-Laurent

Production designer: Mark Grattan

Editors: Diego Macho, Sofia Subercaseaux, Sebastian Silva

Music: Pedro Subercaseaux

97 minutes