Head Trip

07.10.13

Sebastián Silva, Crystal Fairy, 2013, color, sound, 98 minutes. Crystal Fairy and Jamie (Gaby Hoffmann and Michael Cera).


A QUEST FOR A HALLUCINOGENIC CACTUS in the Atacama region of Chile brings together an unlikely quintet in Sebastián Silva’s agile Crystal Fairy, a film that confirms the thirty-four-year-old writer-director as one of the sharpest observers of the passive-aggressive strategies that shape group dynamics. Shifting his focus from the particular horror and hilarity of nuclear-family dysfunction found in his previous features The Maid (2009) and Old Cats (2010; codirected with Pedro Peirano), Silva here traces the battle of wills between two young Americans abroad, each unendurable, though in varying degrees.

Obnoxious, entitled Jamie (Michael Cera), bunking with his Chilean friend Champa (Juan Andrés Silva), knows no other Spanish besides hola and gracias, though he considers himself an expert on the quality of his host nation’s cocaine, which he hoovers at a party. After prattling on about The Doors of Perception and mocking other revelers, the twerp notices the hippie-haired, peasant-skirted free spirit of the title (Gaby Hoffmann), the kind of woman who proclaims, “We’re all one self, man.” In a rare moment of blow-induced magnanimity, Jamie invites Crystal to join him, Champa, and Champa’s amiable younger brothers, Pilo (Agustín Silva) and Lel (José Miguel Silva) on their magical mystery tour in search of the mescaline-producing San Pedro cactus. (The brothers are played by the director’s real-life siblings.)

The next day, however, Jamie, packed into a Suburban with the hermanos and camping gear, has completely forgotten his offer to his compatriot, who calls him from the town plaza where they had agreed to meet the night before. He wants to ditch her, but Champa insists that they not abandon Crystal; the Chilean serves not only as translator between his siblings and the Americans but as reproacher, patiently pointing out his pal’s boorish behavior. The shock at the foreigner’s piggy actions that the less English-fluent Pilo and Lel can’t express in words still registers indelibly on their faces. Of course, there’s no need for the siblings to talk about Jamie—whose monomania about acquiring the cactus has made him even more repellent—behind his back: They can trash him openly en espańol.

Yet the most insidious—and entertaining—undermining takes place between Jamie, his matted hair in the larval stage of dreadlocks (suggesting how unbearable he’ll be not just to listen to but to look at in another six months), and Crystal, prone to walking around her all-male traveling companions completely nude, her prodigious bush an immediate conversation stopper. “Am I making you uncomfortable, Jamie?” she patronizingly asks, sensing his eye rolls behind her bare butt. Though he tries constantly, Jamie cannot enlist the brothers in his anti-Crystal crusade; the sibs are too bemused, if not charmed, by her Mother Earth, Mayan-calendar jibber-jabber.

Crystal’s odd allure isn’t lost on viewers, either, thanks to a spectacular performance by Hoffmann. Though this hirsute practitioner of healing rituals and magical passes is revealed in the film’s final act to indulge in far less benign pursuits, the actress imbues the easily caricatured role with complexities from the start, hinting at Crystal’s own inability to take herself seriously. Cera, also impressive, proves that he can play more than the neutered, nervous nice guys that have been his stock-in-trade since the debut of Arrested Development in 2003. But Crystal Fairy belongs to Hoffmann, who should need no talismans or Castanedan ceremonies to emerge from the semiobscurity that followed after a high-profile career as a child actress.

Melissa Anderson

Crystal Fairy opens in limited release on July 12.