The word “bizarre” must have been at least partially created to help define Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Silva’s hallucinogenic, rough-edged comedy “Crystal Fairy”. Setting out into the remote desert vistas of Chile with a 12-page outline and no tripod is a real-life right of passage as legendary as the quest that the characters of “Crystal Fairy” are taking on themselves. It’s a film that needs no more than a one-sentence outline and a mention of the casting to get into Sundance (it did), but its quirks may end up polarizing audiences looking for a straightforward comedy.
Charming man-boy Michael Cera stars as Jamie – an American twenty-something on a journey with his three Chilean friends to find and drink mescaline (found naturally in the San Pedro cactus) on the beaches of the Pacific Ocean in a life-affirming act of enlightenment and friendship. The voyage is disrupted when Jamie meets another American at a party – a strange, free-spirited woman that goes by the name Crystal Fairy (Gaby Hoffmann)- and drunkenly invites her to join them on the trip.
Prone to wild eccentricities and all manners of spiritual, hippy practices, Crystal Fairy’s personality gets in the way of Jamie’s notions of how the trip is supposed to go and before long they are butting heads even after they have drank the notorious San Pedro and began their hallucinogenic trips.
While the film gives off a definite vibe of improvisation (the actors actually drank mescaline while shooting the film), both Cera and Hoffmann show a concrete and deep understanding of their characters.
Cera, typically known as a lovable guru of awkward comedy, plays against type (for the second time this year) as the obnoxious and initially unlikeable Jamie. Jamie is frequently irritated as he becomes increasing disillusioned with the trip that clearly means a great deal to him. His experience with the emotional stress of wanting just one thing to go absolutely perfect, only to watch it fall apart around him is sadder and more real than you may expect going into the film promoted as a comedy. Jamie is so obsessed with how much the trip means to him that he’s in serious danger of missing the beauty right in front of him. It’s not a far stretch that most will be able to relate to the experience of being around people that don’t care about something as strongly as you do – and the resentment stems from that.
While Jamie is becoming more uptight by the second, Gaby Hoffmann’s Crystal Fairy is the embodiment of freedom. Somewhere halfway between attractively self-confident and irritatingly bohemian, Crystal Fairy isn’t well received by the boys at first. After they first meet her, the boys play a “would-you-rather?” game that spawns the question, “Would you rather eat an entire horse in one sitting or stick your nose in Crystal Fairy’s armpit and breathe in?” Despite this initial endearing bashing, her unwillingness to bend as a person later becomes inspiring to the boys in ways too strange to be clichéd. As the film goes on, Hoffmann unravels deeper levels to her characterization of Crystal Fairy, revealing a well-guarded self-awareness to her own odd personality and how it can clash with others.
Adding to the spur-of-the-moment sense of joyous improvisation (the full opening title card reads “Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus and 2012”) is the near-constant handheld camera work of first-time cinematographer Cristián Petit-Laurent. This will be a polarizing feature to the movie – it always is – but I found that the handheld technique doesn’t over-produce the understated emotions of the offbeat characters.
The film’s struggle is with inconsistent tone. The quirks aren’t charming like a Wes Anderson picture; they’re often just off-putting. “It’s not for everyone” comes to mind quickly – writer/director Sebastián Silva steamrolls over any hesitations to get in sync with the curious nature of the film. Many moments may be utterly bewildering, but the overall atmosphere does stick with you after it’s over.
That’s the mystery of the whole film – it’s poised to be another entry into a long lineage of similar road-trip, coming-of-age films, yet it sidesteps clichés with its absurdity. The characters aren’t coming-of-age; they’re in early-life crisis.
U.S. Limited Release: July 2013 | U.K. Release: TBA
1 hr. 38 min.