Sean K. Cureton

Review of the Week: Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus and 2012 (2013)

In Movies on VOD: Reviews and Recommendations on December 7, 2013 at 3:31 pm

Theatrical Poster

Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus and 2012 (2013)
Directed by Sebastian Silva
Netflix Rating: Didn’t Like It

Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus and 2012 is a drug film starring Michael Cera that centers around a trip taken into the Chilean desert by two Americans and three Chilean brothers in search of a fabled cactus plant, supposedly capable of rendering a psychedelic experience in anyone brave enough to ingest its hide. Independent filmmaker Sebastian Silva, whose work on the 2009 film The Maid earned him much critical acclaim after it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2009, directs the film with the idiosyncratic eye of someone entirely detached from the Hollywood system. In fact, since premiering Crystal Fairy at Sundance earlier this year, Silva has come out with the information that much of the film was improvised over the course of two weeks of filming, its actors equipped with only an eleven page outline to serve as direction. While parts of the film feel spontaneous due to this naturalistic method of storytelling, most of the picture suffers from a lack of focus and direction, causing the plot to sputter and stall at more than one point over the course of the film’s mercifully brief 98 minutes. While Silva’s ambitions are admirable, and his distinctive vision is refreshing in its peculiarities, Crystal Fairy is a confused mess that’s unable to move beyond its initial charms.

When the film starts, the viewer is introduced to Jamie (Michael Cera), a restless and dopey American in Chile, obsessed with psychedelic drugs and Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception. Eventually, we meet Crystal, played by former child-actor Gaby Hoffman, who is an equally neurotic and wide-eyed American with her own attachments to the psychedelic lifestyle. By chance, these two end up on the same journey into the Chilean desert with three Chilean brothers, and together they experience a drug fueled “trip” that serves as a source of therapeutic catharsis, for both the characters and the film as a whole. Throughout much of the film, Jamie is self-involved and antagonistic, and Crystal is aloof and enigmatically self-defining. By the film’s end, these two protagonists gain a sense of self-coherency, granting them the ability to transcend their self-centered hedonism, and bring the viewer into closer understanding with them and their personal journey.

Unfortunately, most of the film is centered on the events that lead up to this catharsis, making the film’s central narrative arc rather stunted and nihilistic in tone. Jamie is unlikable from the very first scenes of the film, and his behavior and temperament doesn’t improve as the film goes on. Likewise, Crystal is the stereotypical hippie-beatnik, overly concerned with her own life style and spiritual-mysticism to the point of an inadvertent exclusion of those around her, including the viewer. It’s hard to make another person’s experience on drugs entertaining to someone else, and Silva’s film is no exception to this difficulty. The act of voyeurism, of which film takes part, is dependent on the viewing of something potentially interesting to ogle; watching someone take a drug and experience its psychedelic effects is tantamount to filming paint drying on a wall, leaving the viewer’s senses as dull and un-stimulating as the object of observation.

And yet, for all of its self-indulgent preoccupations, Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus and 2012 is, visually and dramatically, one of the boldest and most creative films of the past year. Sebastian Silva’s sense for hyper-realistic dialogue and action, based on his use of improvisation instead of writing, is bold and refreshing, capturing the viewer’s attention immediately, and never letting go. Additionally, Michael Cera’s involvement with such an inventive project is a fantastic move forward for the still very young actor, serving to sever whatever associations viewers might still hold of Cera as the young and awkward dweeb, frequently cast in popular American comedies as the straight man to co-stars with a broader range. It’s also striking to see Gaby Hoffman in such a mature and dynamic role that serves to separate her from the chastity intimated in such films as Uncle Buck and Sleepless in Seattle, both literally and figuratively. Silva’s Crystal Fairy is not one of the best films of the year, nor is it a great film, but it is a film that prods and tests the boundaries of its performers, and needs to be seen by anyone interested in experimentation within popular narrative filmmaking.

Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus and 2012 is available on Netflix Instant View, and is my Movies on Netflix: Review of the Week.

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