Crystal Fairy is a perplexing movie that does certain things so well you can mostly forgive it for the things it doesn’t. Mostly. The film, clearly shot on a dime and maybe even improvised by director Sebastian Silva and a talented cast, stars Michael Cera as Jamie, a young American making his way through Latin America hanging out, partying, and sampling drugs. Early on, we hear him talking about the quality of the different types of Chilean weed and cocaine the way some people might talk about Italian wine, or Turkish carpets. He’s the kind of guy who would never think of himself as an ugly American, but he clearly is – aggressively driven and focused on getting high and having a good time, and unable at times to just take in the world around him.
One night at a party he meets Crystal (Gaby Hoffmann), a fellow American whom he first sees dancing like a wannabe flower child: “You’re embarrassing yourself!” he tells her, but then, somehow – maybe it’s the alcohol or the drugs or the fact that he imagines himself to be a nice guy – he invites Crystal to go on a road trip with him and a trio of Chilean brothers. Their plan is to brew some homemade mescaline from San Pedro cactus plants and camp out at the beach. She takes him up on the offer – a fact Jamie finds bewildering and troublesome once he sobers up. But being the passive-aggressive twit that he is, he can’t quite bring himself to tell her to leave. Whenever his annoyance threatens to emerge, he stuffs it back inside with an excuse of some sort. (“I’m always like this in the mornings,” he says at one point – an excuse I’m pretty sure I myself have used multiple times in my life.)
Crystal is the diametrical opposite of Jaime. Intent on finding herself, she’s an ugly American of a different sort – the kind who for all her talk about making spiritual connections and chakras and whatnot still essentially sees this foreign landscape as a backdrop to her hippy-dippy journey of self-discovery. But at least she has an openness to experience, and a studied kindness; there’s a glow to her self-absorption. And as the journey proceeds it becomes clear to the Chileans that for all her kookiness Crystal is a far more intriguing and likable companion than Jaime. The latter will drive like a bandit through a vast and beautiful desert landscape because he wants to have enough time to cook his mescaline and take it “under the stars”; life, for him, is a theme park, and he needs to get to the next ride.
The cast is uniformly excellent. The wonderful Hoffmann gets the more showy performance – both physically and conceptually – but Cera has a deceptively tough job to do here, too. He has to juggle two modes – angel-faced pushover and selfish creep – and the movie’s fate rests on his scrawny shoulders. But he gamely carries it, and well. He has played the nice guy so many times that I’ve never quite realized how broad, almost Kabuki-like, his facial expressions can be.
Crystal Fairy is tough at times to watch — the characters aren’t typically likable and Silva’s muddy, handheld aesthetic isn’t exactly pleasant. But the film captures a particular kind of social dynamic so well that it’s hard not to be mesmerized by it, too. Watching Crystal slowly turn Jamie’s friends against him, and this pathetic young man’s utter helplessness — his slow-burn douchebaggery, if you will — in the face of this wild, uncertain creature, you sense that you’re watching an elemental, almost timeless conflict. Unfortunately, the film can keep this back-and-forth going for only so long. The inevitable climactic drug binge, when it finally comes, leads to a strangely conventional resolution; all the third act wandering and tripping and anguished confessions feel forced, even canned. It’s an unfortunate way to conclude what is otherwise a surprisingly out-there film. By the end, not unlike its characters, Crystal Fairy doesn’t quite know what to do with itself.