Michael Cera goes on a drug trip

Sebastián Silva’s second flick with Michael Cera this year Crystal Fairy and the Magic Cactus, explores human frailty and psychedelics.

Michael Cera in Crystal Fairy and the Magic Cactus

Crystal Fairy, the latest from Chilean writer/director Sebastián Silva, combines two of the classic cult genres, the road movie and the drug-trip movie. Michael Cera plays Jamie, a young American vacationing in Chile. His friend Champa (Juan Andrés Silva) promises to take him on a road trip to a town where he can sample the San Pedro cactus, which contains mescaline. In the movie’s opening scene at a party, they meet Crystal Fairy (Gaby Hoffman), an American hippie chick extraordinaire. Jamie, in a coke-fuelled burst of motor-mouthed sociability, invites her along on the trip. The next day, to his horror, he finds out she’s accepted.

There isn’t a lot of plot to the movie. Accompanied by Champa’s brothers (José Miguel Silva and Agustín Silva), the group wanders around trying to find the cactus, then go to a beach to do their trip. The film, which Silva says is a semi-autobiographical story, is more of a character study. Cera’s Jamie is an obnoxious, entitled ugly American who hides his emotions under a thick level of snark, while Hoffman’s Crystal at first just seems like comic relief as a stereotypical New Age flake, but ends up revealing several layers of complexity.

It’s been interesting to watch Cera’s career. When he went from Arrested Development to Superbad and the web series Clark and Michael, I was convinced that we had the next Woody Allen on our hands. Since then, he’s worked at pushing the conceptual envelope — he’s now played himself twice, first in the execrably twee Charlyne Yi pseudo-documentary Paper Heart and then with his darkly hilarious cameo in This Is the End — but so far has yet to fully live up to his early potential.

Interestingly, Crystal Fairy is one of two recent collaborations between Cera and Silva, both road-trip movies set in Chile; the other, Magic Magic, recently premiered at Fantasia. In this film, Cera mainly succeeds at coming across as genuinely unlikeable. That sounds like damning with faint praise, but not a lot of actors are willing to go there so completely. Like a character from Noah Baumbach at his most cutting, Cera’s Jamie is slow to realize that snark and irony are cold comfort in the world of actual adult relationships.

But as the title indicates, the film really belongs to Hoffman. A former child actor like her co-star, she commands the screen even when she’s just spouting hippie claptrap, and as the film progresses she brings out the character’s depth. She also spends long stretches of the film fully naked, which makes her performance more vulnerable and somehow more powerful.

Although a drug trip is at the centre of the plot, those expecting a psychedelic freakout à la Easy Rider or Fear and Loathing will be disappointed. Like a lot of young people experimenting with psychedelics, the characters here expect to uncover the secrets of the universe, but end up mostly getting a reality check about themselves. And similarly, the film ends up being less about drugs and more about human foibles and frailties. ■

Crystal Fairy and the Magic Cactus opens in theatres today

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