"Crystal Fairy" is a slow-simmering but potent concoction. Like the hallucinogenic brew painstakingly distilled from a purloined San Pedro cactus by an American drug tourist in the film, it demonstrates that a simple formula can produce a memorable effect.
The fourth feature from playful Chilean writer-director Sebastian Silva (who received international attention for "The Maid" in 2009), "Crystal Fairy" offers the shaggy, meandering tale of self-centered young Jamie (Michael Cera), a generally harmless but somewhat whiny and annoying American who has read "The Doors of Perception" and come to Chile to emulate Aldous Huxley by ingesting mescaline from a peyote cactus.
Jamie resembles a string-bean Harpo Marx, but he is more frantic than confident; he is eager to gobble Chile's drugs but otherwise has a tentative relationship with his host culture, as symbolized by his inability to speak Spanish and his recent "bad experience" with a seafood empanada. His juvenile approach to foreign travel suggests that he also is a dilettantish explorer of the mind.
Jamie is guided on his mission by a more-mature Chilean friend, Champa, played by Juan Andres Silva, and Champa's younger brothers, played by Jose Miguel Silva and Agustin Silva. These Silvas are real-life brothers, and also brothers of the director; in fact, there are seven Silva brothers in all. (Can a Chilean revamp of "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" be far behind?)
The four young men travel to Copiapo in northern Chile, a town known for its psychedelic cacti and for its proximity to astonishingly lovely desert and rocky beach. The dynamic of this boys' vacation is loose, but it changes when the group is joined by a youngish American woman, Crystal Fairy (a superb Gaby Hoffman), cruelly dubbed "Crystal Hairy" by Jamie, in reference to her heavy eyebrows, unshaven armpits and ungroomed elsewhere. A dark Frida Kahlo type who eschews makeup and, frequently, clothes, Crystal Fairy is an enthusiastic and apparently sweet-natured New Age hippie type who insists that humankind must "reconcile with the divine" and "awaken to our own selves." Complains Jamie, who invited Crystal Fairy in the first place: "She's kind of exhausting."
Low-key and amusing and apparently semi-improvised, "Crystal Fairy" accumulates power as it progresses -- as it works its way into the viewer's bloodstream, if you will (even the title sounds like a nickname for a drug).
A leading light of the current unsung New Wave of South American filmmaking that includes Peru's Josue Mendez and Argentina's Paula Markovitch, Sebastian Silva recognizes that his stunning beach location will have a calming effect on the audience as well as on his characters.
Jamie and, especially, Crystal Fairy become such believable, dimensional people that Crystal's tearful confession, which gives Hoffman a showstopping chance to show her dramatic stuff, is something of a spell-breaker -- in a major film with a major actress, it would be an "Oscar bait" moment. Even so, it deserves the group hug it inspires, and you may want to wrap your arms around the movie, too.
Incidentally, the film's full name, according to its title card, is "Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus and 2012." It's no surprise that American distributor IFC Films chose to truncate that mouthful.
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