The Chilean feature Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus, which opens Friday at Music Box, feels anecdotal, even tossed-off. Set over a few leisurely days, it centers on Jamie (Michael Cera), a spoiled, insensitive American living in Santiago and obsessed with drugs. Along with his Chilean roommate, Pilo (Augustin Silva), and Pilo's two brothers, he plans to take a road trip to a remote town called San Pedro, score a hunk of its native cactus, known for its hallucinogenic properties, and have an epic trip on the beach.
All this happens without much complication, and there's no resulting epiphany. The only thing that keeps the young men from having a consistently good time—apart from Jamie's endless, condescending patter—is the young woman they take along, a flaky, self-righteous new-ager from California who calls herself Crystal Fairy (Gaby Hoffmann). The movie generates some low-key suspense from the possibility that the men will tell her to get lost, and it hints at a cathartic resolution in the possibility that Jamie and Crystal, the two ugly Americans, will get over themselves and become friends. Neither of these things happen, however; the film ends abruptly just when these two characters start to realize how obnoxious they are.
But focusing on the plot of Crystal Fairy does an injustice to the movie, which teems with energy, sense of place, and psychological insight. Writer-director Sebastian Silva (The Maid) isn't interested in story so much as creating a memorable experience. His approach is comparable to what Miles Davis did on many of his albums, bringing together the right players and formal ideas to produce a unique groove. Silva was a musician before he started making movies; his band CHC released three albums between 2003 and 2007, and he's also recorded under the monikers Yaia and Los Mono. Because of this, perhaps, Crystal Fairy often suggests a well-structured jam session.
A fan of The Maid, Cera approached Silva in 2010 with the idea of working together. The two became friendly but didn't settle on a project until two years later, when Silva decided to rewrite his psychological thriller Magic Magic to make the protagonist American. Cera moved to Santiago for three months to live with Silva and get acquainted with Chilean life, but when the time came to shoot, the producers had yet to come through with the money. Luckily for Silva, director Pablo Larrain (Tony Manero, No) and his brother Juan de Dios—who also produced Silva's first feature, La Vida Me Mata (2007)—stepped in with an offer to finance a low-budget project on the condition that production be completed in the next few months. (Cera and Silva wound up making Magic Magic afterward, and it premiered in January, along with Crystal Fairy, at the Sundance Film Festival.)
Silva wrote a rough script for Crystal Fairy in a few weeks, basing the story on an experience from his early 20s. (In interviews he claims that nearly everything in the movie really happened to him.) Cera would be his autobiographical stand-in, and Silva's three younger brothers would play the travel companions. Hoffmann, another friend, would fly down from the States to play the annoying American who tagged along on Silva's drug trip. The movie took about as long to shoot as it did to plot out, with most of the dialogue improvised on the spot or written just before the cameras rolled.
This process resulted in a movie that's loose without feeling aimless, thanks to Silva's fruitful combination of the spontaneous and the premeditated. Consider the nature of the project: Silva spent about a decade reflecting on this story (he's 34 now) but only a couple months realizing it. One can intuit from the casual tone that the actors had little time to prepare, yet Silva complicates that tone with the specificity of certain details and the solid construction of individual scenes. Many sequences culminate with some precise character revelation that carries the weight of an old memory: when the travelers stop at a convenience store, and Crystal chastises the men for buying junk food, she's irritating but guileless nonetheless, her good intentions shining through.
One of the pleasures of Crystal Fairy is seeing Cera and Hoffman develop three-dimensional characters through focused, energetic riffing. Hoffmann gives the showier performance—she even plays a few lengthy scenes in the nude to illustrate Crystal's naturalist philosophy—but Cera's is no less accomplished. Insistent, inflexible, and smug, Jamie seems at first like a parody of U.S. entitlement. (I was surprised to learn that he was basically playing Silva as a younger man; apparently Chilean upper-class entitlement isn't that different from its U.S. counterpart.) Yet the character is undeniably determined and enthusiastic within his narrow set of concerns. This comes through most clearly during the central set piece, in which Jamie, stonewalled by the locals in his search for the coveted plant, refuses to leave San Pedro without it. This young man possesses some of the traits of a talented filmmaker; maybe he'll become one when he grows up.
Silva throws these performances into relief through his savvy use of nonprofessional actors. Augustin had been in a few other movies (including The Maid), but Silva's other brothers had no previous film experience. All three seem to have trouble containing their bemusement with Cera and Hoffmann; so do the supporting actors playing the locals encountered on the trip. When Jamie and Crystal are most grating, Silva usually has a Chilean character looking on within the shot, fascinated by their bad behavior but too bashful to acknowledge it. Silva never explains why Pilo has put up with Jamie for so long or why he and his brothers insist on having Crystal come along after Jamie, having drunkenly invited her at a party, tries to renege on his offer. Yet the longer Silva observes these characters, the clearer the answers becomes: in the laid-back culture of Chile, these pushy Americans are rare birds, fascinating and novel.
This tension between North and South American attitudes—along with Silva's predilection for filming carefully orchestrated action with jittery handheld camerawork—helps to give Crystal Fairy its steady momentum. The narrative may feel inconsequential, but from moment to moment it pulses with a real sense of uncertainty. That's a good approximation of what being in your early 20s feels like, when the exhilaration of being newly independent clashes with the fear that you have no idea what you're doing. In valuing mood over storytelling, Silva articulates this feeling with startling accuracy.