Michael Cera in Sebastian Silva's Chilean 'Crystal Fairy' (Sundance Film Festival )
PARK CITY, Utah -- Michael Cera has embarked on some pretty quirky adventures in recent years—“Paper Heart,” or the collected canon of George Michael Bluth. But he’s up for some serious noodling in “Crystal Fairy,” a new road trip dramatic comedy that helped open the Sundance Film Festival on Thursday night and is told in a mix of English and Spanish. (Cera speaks mostly the former.)
For one thing, the film was shot in Chile, over a period of 12 days, with nothing close to a script. For another, it gets Cera far away from the lovable fey nerd he’s so often played.
Instead, as Jamie, an American living in Chile for unexplained reasons, Cera plays a man clueless, impatient, and annoying to the bone. He’s the kind of person who’ll invite a woman to come along on a road trip without checking with his friends, then try to back out on the invitation because the woman is annoying him—and tell her that to her face. The best that can be said is he’s insecure. The worst is, well, worse.
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Directed by Sebastian Silva (foreign-language film fans will remember his acclaimed “The Maid” from a few years back), “Crystal Fairy” tells of Jamie and some Chilean acquaintances (they’d be hesitant to call him friends) who set out from Santiago for an overnight trip to the beach. Jamie is keen to do some San Pedro—essentially, mescaline made from the eponymous cactus—and he’s dead set on annoying everyone around him until and unless they help him get it done.
The group soon meets up with the titular Crystal Fairy (Gaby Hoffmann), an over-the-top hippie as socially inept as Jamie (well, almost). Crystal is seeking her own kind of spiritual enlightenment, and has as much of an aversion to razors as she does clothing.
As Jamie, Crystal and the Chilean men get farther away from Santiago they scheme to acquire a cactus (harder than it looks) and generally try to avoid killing each other, though in their reaction to both Jamie and Crystal, it’s safe to say the Chileans are infinitely more patient than any American road-tripper you’ve ever met. In a roundabout, South American sort of way, the movie is about the conflict between two ways of life: Jamie’s brusque go-go attitude and Crystal’s airy (fairy) stop-and-smell the roses one.
Along the way, Jamie gets off some good lines (the comedy comes mainly from him saying outrageous and offensive things he thinks are totally normal, like someone took a South American road trip movie and married it to an American cringe comedy).
Silva said he based the story on a real-life experience. “This movie is dedicated to the real Crystal Fairy who I could never find after doing mescaline with her 10 years ago,” he told the audience after the Sundance screening. (He says he hopes she’ll reach out.)
And how did Cera get involved in all this? He was living in Chile with friends and family of Silva’s as he tried to learn Spanish for a different film with the director, a thriller titled “Magic Magic” that’s also at Sundance. When there were delays due to financing, Silva polished an outline he'd been working on and asked Cera and the other actors if they’d be willing to wing it and shoot this movie for 12 days.
And wing it they did. In one crucial scene, Jamie is supposed to confess a meaningful moment in his life to the group around a campfire. Silva told him to make it up. “I was like, what do you mean, just tell a story?" Cera told the Sundance audience. "About what?”
Silva recounted that when he talked to Cera and Hoffman, “they told me they didn't know how to improvise. And I was panicking."
He need not have worried. Cera’s comic timing is much on display as he tosses out various forms of obnoxiousness that are often funny, if not endearing. Whether viewers respond to its rambling structure and cloying hero remains to be seen. (The film is up for distribution.) But give Cera points for trying--it's not every American actor who'll hug a cactus on a Chilean beach with a naked hippie.
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