If you hate being the one guy at a party who doesn’t dig recreational drug use, you’re probably going to have a rough time with Crystal Fairy. Oscillating between road trip shenanigans and drug-induced catharsis, Chilean filmmaker Sebastian Silva has the makings of a good film lying right out in the open, but the film’s better elements -an absolutely fearless performance by former child actress Gabby Hoffman chief among them – never gel cohesively with the areas where Crystal Fairy ends up failing. For a story that hinges entirely on a journey of personal realization and cactus-derived hallucinogens, the film exhibits a shocking lack of profundity and doesn’t end up arriving at any meaningful conclusions.
So Crystal Fairy could easily be identified as a movie for the hipster set, and therefore presents one more reason why hipsters are terrible for everything. If Silva positioned his narrative more carefully, we could probably interpret Crystal Fairy as a huge swipe at that fad-bent demographic, and in some ways, maybe it still does. But in too many other respects the film very nearly exults the indulgences it would have been better off sniping at. If there’s any angle from which Silva’s work can be admired – and with its blown-out, ugly photography, it certainly can’t be praised for its technical merits – it’s acting, but if Michael Cera and the aforementioned Ms. Hoffman give their all to their individual roles, they do so in service to two-dimensional cut-outs rather than actual characters.
Hoffman steps into the title role as a free-spirited hippie spiritualist, the sort of person who inhabits a plane of existence other than our own; Cera, on the other hand, plays Jamie, an obnoxious American on a visit to Chile who fits the “trust fund baby” profile effortlessly, even if he’s never explicitly labeled with that term. (If it looks like a spoiled, rich, white kid, if it swims like a spoiled, rich, white kid…) Jamie’s on a mission to ingest mescaline distilled from a particular genus of cactus, intending on making it to the coast with his foreign host friends (each played by a Silva sibling) in order to experience its effects firsthand. But he hits a snag along the way, insomuch as getting drunk and inviting a total stranger – Fairy – along for the ride can be considered a “snag”, and all his plans are put to ruin.
Well, not quite, but the way Jamie reacts to Crystal’s presence does suggest a degree of catastrophe. Crystal, for all of her eccentricities – she’s a chatterbox, she has opinions about the processed food you eat and she really wants to share them, she is casually naked at every opportunity – is actually a pretty good person, maybe not someone you’d necessarily want to hang around for great spans of time (again, according to those listed traits, your mileage may vary), but she has her heart in the right place. To Jamie, she’s a drag, a wrench in the works, a nuisance to be pushed away and discarded and humiliated. She’s so weird! Why not give her unflattering (and laughably unimaginative) nicknames to passive-aggressively get the point across?
And therein lies the crux of what makes Crystal Fairy such a frustrating effort. Ignore the fact that Silva does little to honor the beautiful locations where he shot his film; ignore the fact that the entire production was sporadically shot on a whim as he and his cast prepared for his other 2013 release, Magic Magic. (Trust me, it shows.) This is a story about vapid, entitled people acting vapid and entitled that does no real legwork to earn the third act change of heart that anyone who has ever watched a movie will see coming from a mile away. In other words, Silva presents Jamie as one of the most unlikable characters of the year and redeems him with a disinterested shrug of the shoulders. After everything Jamie does to hurt Crystal and satisfy his own drives, the blase fashion in which the film unburdens him of his guilt is insulting.
Part of the problem is that Jamie has no shape. Cera ably plays within that formless shell – it may be one of his best performances to date – and if nothing else, he deserves praise for finding the self-interested center of the character and making him so repellent. (If that doesn’t sound like a compliment, it most assuredly is. It takes real talent to make a screen figure this humanly offensive.) But he’s just one undefined figure in a cast full of them. Even Crystal, the most well-rounded character of the bunch, remains an enigma for the majority of the film’s running time despite the surprising and heartbreaking truths she tearfully about herself minutes before the credits roll.
None of this stops Hoffman from being great at what she’s doing, but it does keep Crystal Fairy from being the movie it could be. Nobody here receives more than an ounce of real development; we have no idea who Jamie’s friends are, only that they alternate between participating in his perpetual campaign of psychological warfare on Crystal and inexplicable disengagement as the script demands. We have no idea what motivates Jamie beyond his id, and while that’s probably part of Silva’s intention, there’s nothing compelling about watching a privileged American male seek out the ultimate organic high with a group of people who don’t even like him.
All of this results in an amorphous, aimless film without much of anything to say, but it’s the near-miss factor that makes Crystal Fairy so aggravating. Silva could have made a great picture, maybe one to accompany Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers as a comment about directionless youth; instead he did the opposite, populating Crystal Fairy with characters who read as alternative variants on the kids being critiqued in Korine’s own picture. If only Silva had bothered to intervene at any moment here and brought a tough of genuine morality to his narrative (as opposed to disingenuous remorse), Crystal Fairy might have been worth writing home about.