All words: Alan Pyke
Just because you make your lone female character titular doesn’t mean you can exploit her casually to imbue your movie with whatever “something” you think it lacks. Somebody should tell Sebastián Silva that, ideally before the Crystal Fairy writer/director starts his next movie. Somebody should also knock the “writer” credit for that next project, or at least have him write “I will not waste my audience’s time” on the blackboard a few hundred times. Maybe then the man’s obvious talent for visual art won’t be squandered on aimless garbage.
Crystal Fairy follows American traveler, heavy-drug enthusiast, and irredeemable narcissist Jamie (Michael Cera) on a trip with his Chilean friends to find a San Pedro cactus, brew up some mescaline, and open their doors of perception on a desert-ringed beach. At a party the night before, a much be-coked Jamie invites fellow American psychedelephile Crystal Fairy (Gaby Hoffman) to join them, but only after making lots of fun of the way she dances and approaches life. When she actually shows up at the rendezvous he doesn’t remember the invitation, and he fails to convince Champa (Juan Andrés Silva) that the boys should just ditch her, so Jamie does everything he can to make her feel unwelcome as they hunt down a cactus and head to the beach.
And then hijinks ensue, right? Everything gets funny, or deep, or perhaps frightening, as the unlikely quintet slide deep into a notoriously potent hallucinogen? Right? Characters evolve, relationships shift, forms of comeuppance or reward or something are meted out? No? Hm.
The problem with Crystal Fairy is emphatically not Cera’s sociopathic lead character. The Arrested Development and Juno and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World star isn’t so much playing against type as he is playing at the extremely unlikeable end of the gawky man-boy spectrum where he’s made his living. His acting in the part is as strong as Jamie is unbearable.
He’s casually dickish to every single person he meets. He’s unscrupulous without being any fun at all to root against. He’s self-involved, brash, refuses to even try to speak Spanish. He’s utterly disinterested in, say, the legroom of the person behind him on a long car trip. Basically, he’s the perfected nightmare version of the American abroad: certain he can pave over every shithead behavior by paying for something. The only implausible thing about Jamie is the idea that he’s got three Chilean buddies willing to take him on a road trip, and Crystal Fairy makes no effort to explain their companionship.
Even after an hour in, after the feeling that none of this is going anywhere has sunk in, it still seems like there might be something of value around the next corner. It’s about to break into a druggy horror flick, you tell yourself, where Jamie is brutalized by nature, or he is left the lone survivor is his good-hearted pals die off. Or maybe it’ll take some kind of challenging, risky, surprisingly genuine turn with Jamie, and observe him undergoing some sort of transformation, some sort of arc. Or maybe it will break into raucous drug comedy then slam the characters back into reality the next morning.
But it never breaks. The worm never turns. And in the end there’s nothing there.
Or worse than nothing, given how it treats Hoffman’s titular hippie-go-lucky foil to Jamie. Hoffman does solid work as the other nightmare extreme of the young international American, all starry eyes and well-meaning condescension. But it’s a thankless part, smashing Crystal Fairy’s good intentions and patience against Jamie’s awfulness again and again to heighten tension, only for the script to cheat its way out of that conflict. Not only cheat, but cheat using the most vulgar, reckless, and faux-feminist of character twists. There are plenty of ways for filmmakers to attack rape culture and buoy understanding of female trauma and sexuality, but tacking those things on at the end of a lackadaisical story because you’ve run out of things to say isn’t one of them. The last ten minutes of the movie reek of flopsweat, made all the worse by how effectively the preceding hour-and-a-half engaged the viewer’s attention.
On the other hand, that Crystal Fairy can produce such a strong reaction speaks to the technical strength of the filmmaking. There’s a steadiness to Silva’s visual language and sense of story rhythm, despite the vapidity of the movie he’s made here, that captivates. The vérité restraint of the cinematography, lapsing now and then into more tangibly constructed shots, gives things an oddly riveting austerity that’s appropriate for the desert scenery and insufferable husk of a main character. When Silva and cinematographer Cristián Petit-Laurent throw in a long shot or let the camera slide off-center for a split-second to conspicuously reframe one detail of a frame, it’s never haphazard. It’s exciting, even.
On some level, it works. It’s visually and sonically adroit filmmaking, and so Crystal Fairy succeeds in creating a believable world.
It’s just not one you’d want to visit for very long. Or even for 98 minutes.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=expPMt-TX_k