Dir. by Sebastian Silva - 1 hr. 38 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
I didn't wholly know what to expect out of "Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus." I hoped for something a little surreal, hoped for something a little funny. What I got was a lot better than either of those things. This film is a throwback to indie films (in the best way); small cast, subtle, meaningful, improvised at least partially, no explosions, likely no budget either. I found myself drawn in to the story, and reacting strongly to the characters, and fully enjoying the ride.
Jamie (Michael Cera) is an American vacationing in Chile. At least I think so - I'm not clear why he's there exactly other than to do a bunch of drugs, and for a time I was convinced that Cera was supposed to be playing an a-hole version of himself in a fictional story. Anyhoo, while he's high at a party, he ends up inviting an Earth Mother type with the improbable name of Crystal Fairy (Gaby Hoffmann) along on his and his friends' road trip, which is to culminate with a day of tripping on the beach from a tea made from the San Pedro cactus, which just grows in Chile. He almost immediately regrets the choice the next morning, and tries to convince his guide (of sorts), Champa (Juan Andres Silva) to ditch her, since her aggressive New Ageyness is getting on his nerves, but fails. And so, the trip must continue.
"Crystal Fairy" has a distinct sense of unease throughout the entire film. The story itself is pretty straightforward; a bunch of near-strangers head out on a road trip to engage in some psychoactive leisure. The execution of the story is fascinating, however. Part of it is the constant chatter in a foreign tongue and the half-accurate translations being passed back and forth between the characters. They kind of all understand what's happening, except when they don't, like in the scene in a park when Jamie and the three brothers meet up with Crystal Fairy, and she's being accosted by a pack of locals in a park for some unexplained reason that remains unexplained. The story is full of things that should happen, and then we're not quite sure if they're actually going to happen or not. Things that should be easy aren't, and then random occurrences that nobody can adequately explain happen to complicate matters. And then the things that are supposed to happen end up happening. It's bewildering, but accurately replicates the feeling of travelling in a foreign country. I felt off-balance the entire length of the movie, but I intend that as a compliment.
With such a small cast (it's largely five people for the bulk of the film, everyone else is pretty much incidental), the weight is on the cast to deliver performances that can carry a viewer's attention for an hour and a half. All five members of the cast deliver. Michael Cera is probably the only person that most people have heard of, and you might be led to believe that this story is entirely his, but that wouldn't be accurate. The tone of story is low-key and shambolic, the brothers all kind of going with the flow and muttering between themselves, and Crystal Fairy doing what you'd expect a woman going by the name Crystal Fairy to do (which is in itself a pretty remarkable performance), but Cera's nervousness and one-track mind make him come off like the asshole. His character is almost always annoyed with Crystal Fairy and her behavior, but Jamie's overreactions paint him as the bad guy. I found the dynamic really fascinating; by lowering the amount of energy that the other actors expend, Cera doing Cera's thing is re-contextualized into something arrogant and really annoying, almost unbearably so at times.
So what starts off as a story of an American abroad wanting to do some serious hallucinogenics ends up something completely different. Gaby Hoffmann's performance is dead-on and convincing, even though her character is complicated and contradictory. She spends most of the film building up a certain facade (going so far as unexpected casual nudity, that earns her the nickname "Crystal Hairy") only for the story to occasionally poke holes in it. By the time the film shifts into the third act, it's clear that the story is more about her than it is about Jamie (even though Cera's on the poster by himself). I don't even know how to explain what a great performance Hoffmann gives, because you can't really say that the character was well-written, because the film is largely improvisational. The character is memorable and distinct, but you could say that about the entire film.
"Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus" was so much better than I was hoping for. I grew up on indie films in the '90s, where you could have movies with low-key (or even non-existent) plots based around character development and a pervasive sense of oddness. This was a welcome antidote to big movies, slick movies, under-written movies. This film requires that you pay attention to it, and to the ebbing and flowing relationships between the characters (even the brothers aren't all on the same page all the time), and rewards that attention with unexpected quirks and moments that are engrossing and span quite a range of emotion. If that sounds like your kind of thing, get thee to Netflix and press play.
3.5 / 5 - Streaming