Many young Americans go to far-flung locales to find themselves, to have adventures that take them outside their bourgeois comfort zones and perhaps give them a taste of real freedom. Sebastián Silva’s freewheeling comedy Crystal Fairy & The Magical Cactus offers a gentle counterpoint to such trust-fund pioneers: “Hey guys, there are other people living here, you know?” Natives of such far-flung locales don’t feel like they’re living in exotic sites for reckless, drug-fueled rites of passage. They’re home.
Produced on the fly while Silva and star Michael Cera were in limbo on another project—Magic Magic, which they completed in time to première alongside this film at Sundance—Crystal Fairy (or Crystal Fairy & The Magical Cactus And 2012, as it’s titled onscreen) mostly benefits from its devil-may-care conception, which naturally complements the wayward journey of two Americans and their three local hosts/tolerators, all heading to the Chilean coastline. Their goal is to camp out on the beach, extract mescaline from a San Pedro cactus, and trip together—an ambition roughly in line with Harold and Kumar going to White Castle, and just as rife with potential for shaggy-dog comedy. All messaging about Ugly Americanism aside—and Silva, to his credit, isn’t the least bit emphatic in making that point—the film seems content to hang out and marinate its low-key culture-clash comedy.
And then things take a turn.
Breaking from the meek, self-effacing dweeb he mastered in Arrested Development and most of his Hollywood comedies, Cera brings such a wired restlessness to Jamie, an American party-hopper in Santiago, that his friends take to calling him “Pollo.” (Though his scrawny legs and frizzy mophead account for the nickname, too.) Inspired by Aldous Huxley’s The Doors Of Perception—and a more general impulse toward pleasure-seeking—Jamie recruits three Chilean brothers (Juan Andrés Silva, José Miguel Silva, Agustín Silva) to join him on his psychotropic mission to a secluded coastal enclave. At a party the evening before, blasted out of his mind on liquor and cocaine, Jamie strikes up a conversation with another American, a space cadet who calls herself “Crystal Fairy” (Gaby Hoffmann). He invites her along for the ride, and forgets about it the next morning. Crystal Fairy remembers, though, and she’s just the type of crazy hippie to take a stranger up on his offer.
Jamie and Crystal Fairy appear to be such a study in contrasts—he’s so anxious to down the mescaline that he can think of little else, she’s more interested in the journey than the destination—that it takes a while to see how much they’re the same. Jamie insists to his Chilean escorts that Crystal Fairy, with her flighty pronouncements, casual nudity, and questionable hygiene, is ruining the trip, but he’s more than her match in obliviousness. The film never misses the opportunity to play their opposing temperaments for laughs, but it also pulls off the neat trick of casually underlining their narcissism without losing sympathy for either of them.
But even with shaggy, semi-improvised projects like Crystal Fairy, there’s a need for some kind of conclusion, and Silva devises one that’s simultaneously terribly contrived and by far the most powerful scene in the movie. Silva errs in trying to account for what made Crystal Fairy a damaged, streaking flake, but Hoffmann bails him out with a monologue that turns the worst in pop-psych contrivance into a story that at least feels soul-stirring and true. It’s a miraculous piece of acting that sells the film’s weakest piece of writing while putting a conclusive point on a feature-length amble that doesn’t readily accommodate one. Drug movies tend not to sober up gracefully.