"Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus" is an amusing booze-and-drug-fueled road trip, its travelers on a quest to experience the Holy Grail of highs.
Starring Michael Cera, Gaby Hoffmann and a trio of irresistibly charming Chilean brothers, the search for a slice of the famed San Pedro cactus with legendary hallucinogenic powers takes us through northern Chile’s corner of the Atacama Desert.
As noble as the desire to achieve the perfect altered state may be, it makes for a looser-knit comic fable than we are used to from Sebastian Silva, the Chilean writer-director who crafted class differences into such sharply observed subversive pleasure in 2009’s "The Maid."
Though Cera and Hoffmann have the featured roles, Silva has made "Crystal Fairy" very much a family affair, casting three of his brothers to fill out the Chilean part of the equation. Champa (Juan Andres Silva), the eldest, has been recruited by his drug-loving, international backpacking friend, Jamie (Cera), to make the trip with him. Lel (Jose Miguel Silva) and Pilo (Agustin Silva) are more than happy to go along for the ride.
Fittingly it begins the night before with a party. Jammed with Champa’s friends, there is music to dance to, an unlimited supply of alcohol and some of the finest coke that Jamie has snorted. There is also a wild American child wearing hippie rags, hoping for universal harmony and calling herself Crystal Fairy (Hoffmann). In Jamie’s drugged-out state he invites her to join them on the road. But a morning-after conference nixes that idea and the guys hit the road with a promise to look for Crystal at one of their pit stops along the way.
Cera is terribly unlikable here. I mean that as a compliment. His attempts to move beyond the sweet nerd roles that defined his early work are a welcome change.
Meanwhile, the Silvas are a fine lot, apparently used to letting Sebastian run the show.
The hours on the road shift the mood from party central to contemplation. The hypnotic solitude of the Atacama is beautifully captured by cinematographer Cristian Petit-Laurent’s lens.
Just as we’ve grown weary of Jamie, Crystal Fairy re-enters the film bringing new sources of conflict all rolled into a mostly naked bundle of complications. The actress is fearless in bearing all to create this particular free spirit. Absurd mystical pronouncements somehow become achingly poignant. Her casual nudity a statement in itself. You know the sketchbook she clutches has other stories to tell.
In case we are missing the real point of this trip, Silva keeps circling back to the ways in which that singular focus on the elusive high means Jamie’s missing all there is to experience in the here and now.
Whether the San Pedro does its magic is of course the big question. Regardless, Silva works his, delivering not exactly the Holy Grail of road movies, but a very mellow summer high.