Review first published by Grolsch FilmWorks
He may be Chilean, but recently writer/director Sebastián Silva (The Maid) has taken to focusing his attention on looking at his native land from the often uncomprehending gringo point of view. One might (correctly) regard it as a shrewd commercial move to have the likes of Michael Cera headlining in a South American film (he stars in Silva’s Crystal Fairy and Magic Magic, both released this year), or to have English dominate its dialogue – but Silva is also interested in the outsider’s perspective, while being hardly uncritical of his Northern fish out of water.
In Crystal Fairy, Cera plays Jamie, a fratboy abroad who, inspired by his reading of Aldous Huxley’s ‘The Doors of Perception’, has decided the time is right to take a psychoactive trip into ‘phenomenology’. We first meet him with his friend (and guide) Champa (Juan Andrés Silva) at a party where Jamie derides a woman for claiming to be ‘high on life’ at the same time as she snorts lines of coke – as though for Jamie the two represent an unacceptable contradiction. Indeed, in his monomaniacal pursuit of the local San Pedro cactus that is the source of mescaline, the restless, casually selfish Jamie eschews any kind of openness to spiritual experience, never pausing to meet the people, embrace the culture or even take in the beautiful sights around him.
Travelling cross-country with Champa and his three younger brothers (played by Silva and his own brothers), Jamie is joined by ‘Crystal Fairy’ (Gaby Hoffmann), a free-spirited, flaky and damaged (but ‘healing’) American whom he forgets ever having invited along and quickly regrets ever knowing. Recognising the yin to his yang, Jamie undermines Crystal all the way with characteristic passive aggression – but once the party has reached a beach in the desert, ingested the hallucinogenic brew, and gone a-tripping, truths will out and Crystal will come into her own.
The key note of Crystal Fairy is understatement. Both Jamie and Crystal have their irksome qualities, but the film never takes the easy route of demonising either of them (the brothers, who are like a bi-lingual chorus, broadly accept their two guests for who they are). Even the psychedelic sequences are underplayed, with only a slight delay effect on the soundtrack to mark Jamie’s peak. Instead, the film is built on subtle character contrasts: where Jamie thinks anything can be fixed with money, Crystal tries to use her drawings as actual currency; where Jamie closes himself off to others, Crystal lets it all hang out.
“Everywhere, they leave a record,” explains an American archaeologist of his work looking for ancient whale remains in the desert sand. Crystal and Jamie also inscribe a part of their small lives in this eternal landscape, with Silva trusting his viewers to perform the excavation for themselves.