Prickly cactus juice
by David Lamble
Back in the late 1960s when the movie bug first bit me, I would have been crazy in love with a freedom-loving gulp of pure mad sensations like Sebastian Silva's Crystal Fairy. Chilean director Silva, who got high praise for his breakout hit The Maid, with its bracing truths about life inside an affluent Santiago family from the perspective of a loyal servant, returns with an equally praiseworthy but much rarer creation, the hippie film. Those who remember an era when these hairy creatures roamed the planet may be shocked to witness their brief return.
In the set-up, the protagonist, Jamie, a 20something "Ugly American" drug tourist played with saucy glee by Ontario native Michael Cera, confesses to a Chilean friend his desire to have a mind-expanding trip to the beach fueled by Chile's favorite hallucinogen.
"We made this plan to drink San Pedro on the beach. It's an ancient tradition. This is the perfect thing in my life right now, to do mescaline. Your brothers are into taking it, too? We'll have a psycho outing."
Jamie's plan to get high and quasi-naked with three long-haired Chilean brothers (played by director Silva's actual brothers) is complicated by a mad moment at a party when he impulsively invites a "feral" girl, Crystal Fairy (Gaby Hoffmann), to join the boys' drug picnic. From the get-go the presence of this preachy, New Age-spouting young woman seems to push Jamie into a dark place. Not only is he curt and downright rude to Crystal Fairy, but Jamie also violates the normal code of conduct when vacationing on foreign soil. Informed that they have to persuade some elderly homeowners to gift or sell pieces of their San Pedro cactuses, Jamie boldly hops over a fence and steals a hunk of the precious plant.
Things go from prickly to nasty as Jamie rebuffs Crystal Fairy's efforts to ingratiate herself with the boys. The young woman never stops pushing her "blinding white light" healing-power-of-crystals philosophy. It's a tribute to the strength of the leads and to the strong hand of writer/director Silva that we can be in turns enchanted and repulsed by both. The peak in a series of emotional set-pieces, psychic duels between Jamie and Crystal Fairy, comes in a beach campfire scene where Crystal Fairy incites the boys to reveal their insecurities, and Jamie refuses to join her "healing circle."
"Maybe we should break the ice by talking about what we're afraid of."
"I don't know, the ocean and, like, sharks."
"Jamie, maybe you're just afraid of being honest and opening up."
"Yeah, well, I really am just afraid of sharks."
The movie benefits from a vivid sense of reality – from Crystal Fairy's bold, naked hotel-room moment attempting to intimidate the boys into bowing to her New Age goddess powers, to Jamie's mix of misogyny and pure terror at having to confront this threatening female. This is a true "hippie movie" in the sense that the filmmakers ask us to question middle-class prerogatives. Crystal Fairy owes much to mind-expanding youth films like Arthur Penn's Alice's Restaurant and Alfonso Cuaron's Y Tu Mama Tambien, with characters who make brave, life-shattering choices.
For gay men, the film offers the kind of playful male nakedness – boy/men playing in the sand and giving over to pure narcissism – that's rare in American commercial cinema. The beach scenes in particular have the kind of accidental erotic charge that few pornographers, with the exception of the late Arthur Bresson, Jr., can begin to match.
Canadian actor Michael Cera's explosive career of creating a hero boy mostly pure at heart, starting with Superbad and extending through funny cult-novel adaptations (Youth in Revolt, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), has now come full circle. At 25, the Brooklyn-residing writer/actor sheds his curly locks and springs forward into adulthood on screen and off.
Director Silva has redeemed the promise of The Maid and demonstrated that sometimes the most telling critiques of the limits of personal freedom emerge from the violated soul of a conservative society like Chile.