Some years ago, I was in Ecuador studying abroad, and had to go on a cross-country bus trip. I arrived at the station, found the gate and the line, but I couldn’t find any screens or papers with the arrival time of the bus. When I asked the guy ahead of me, he smiled, shrugged his shoulders, and said, “It’ll come when it comes.” I encountered that kind of casual attitude towards delays over and over again in Ecuador, a willingness to wait patiently that was a real culture shock. As a restless guy from a workaholic New York family, meeting deadlines is big for me, and I usually grew enraged when a schedule wasn’t followed. The leisurely pace I found in Ecuador put that to the test.
So I related wholeheartedly to the tug of war in Michael Cera’s new comedy Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus, from Chilean director Sebastian Silva (The Maid.) This is Silva’s first film with American actors, and it’s an even mix of English and Spanish.
Michael Cera (Arrested Development) plays Jamie, an American tourist in Chile hell-bent on getting the ultimate mescaline high from the San Pedro cactus, a cactus only found in one remote northern village.
In the capital city of Santiago, Jamie convinces a trio of Chilean brothers to go seek out the cactus with him, but he clashes with an unexpected addition to their trip: Crystal Fairy (child star Gaby Hoffman), a wild bohemian American. Crystal Fairy is the kind of woman who’ll strip naked anytime a nice breeze blows, and is always ready with healing crystals and alternative medicine advice. She’s devoted to living in the moment and interacting with every person the gang meets along the way.
This drives Jamie to the brink of insanity. He’s neurotic, paranoid, and so obsessed with the dream cactus that he’s oblivious to and enraged at anything in his way. At times Jamie borders on the psychotic. When the group reaches San Pedro, he arms himself with a butcher knife and storms through town ready to cut himself a slice of the first cactus he can find.
The film follows their journey from Santiago de Chile to San Pedro de Atacama, and then to the beaches of Chile, where Jamie meticulously prepares the group for what he envisions will be the ultimate sunrise acid trip.
Unfortunately, *SPOILER ALERT* the mescaline high does not end up like what Jamie expects, and neither does Crystal Fairy. And he’s exposed to vulnerabilities in himself that force him to look beyond his own interests.
The film is based on Silva’s own experience of going from Santiago Chile to San Pedro de Atacama to get high on the San Pedro cactus. He had actually met a similar bohemian girl named Crystal Fairy along the way and brought her with him on the way.
Silva had Cera available for a few weeks while waiting on production for another film, Magic Magic, and decided to film Crystal Fairy in 12 days. He wrote a 12-page outline of scenes based on his own experience, leaving most of the dialogue to be improvised on the spot.
The resulting movie is very whimsical and often hilarious. But given its improvised nature, the filmmaking itself is at times lazy, especially when it comes to editing and camerawork. At one point, the camera zooms in on a gnome statuette on a shelf and just sits there for no apparent reason. In a Q&A at BAM Cinematek, Silva explained that he filmed it just because he thought it looked funny at the time. There are a lot of random shots of people in coffee shops or on the roads. Sometimes it seems like Silva just edited together the best of what he saw, as if he were making a home movie rather than a feature film.
However, despite the slow spots, Michael Cera and Gaby Hoffman have so much fun with their characters that you forgive the thin plot. Cera based his character off of “drug nerds” he knew growing up, who were led to mescaline after reading Aldous Huxley’s books like The Doors of Perception. Although boorish, selfish and impatient, Cera manages to inject sweetness into his character.
And Gaby Hoffmann (Sleepless In Seattle, Field of Dreams), who has been unseen for years, makes a triumphant return. She brings a delightful freewheeling bohemian spirit to her anarchic character, and Silva gives her character unexpected depth.
Overall, “Crystal Fairy” is a largely forgettable but fun journey. It serves as a welcome reminder to enjoy the journey, no matter how anxious we are to get to the destination.