Sebastián Silva’s road comedy “Crystal Fairy” stars Michael Cera as Jamie, a trust-fund gringo on a psychotropic pleasure tour through South America. High on blow at a party in Santiago the night before setting out across the Atacama to procure the legendary San Pedro cactus, he gives his number to a hippie-dippy fellow American who calls herself Crystal Fairy (Gaby Hoffmann) and seems not to notice, while dancing, that her expansive movements are taking up about half of the room.
Jamie, his amigo Champa and Champa’s brothers Lel and Pilo hit the road the next morning. After a while, Jamie’s cell phone goes off. He can barely hear the voice on the other end. It’s Crystal Fairy, asking him to meet her at the plaza in the next town they come to. She’s accepting his invitation to join their traveling party, an offer of which Jamie has no recollection and no intention to keep. When they find her, she’s being attacked by a group of women who claim she owes them money she tried to repay with drawings. Jamie instantly regrets ever meeting her. He and Champa go out to buy beer, and play a game of “Would you rather…?” (Example: “Would you rather a midget follows you around forever, just watching everything you do, or an endless stream of shit comes out of your ear for the rest of your life?”) When Jamie offers Champa two such choices, one involving Crystal Fairy, I went down like I’d been shot. It’s the funniest line in any movie this year. When Jamie added, “Think about it carefully. Give each one full consideration,” I was inconsolable. I couldn’t stop laughing for the next five minutes, while half the audience joined me and the other half shot us dirty looks. The line is so unexpected and hilariously horrible to contemplate, it’s just devastating.
They finally arrive at the town famous for the San Pedro cactus, but the owners of the few they find aren’t selling. Jamie’s incredulous (“Don’t they understand we’re offering them money?”) and ends up cutting a large chunk off one woman’s cactus while Crystal Fairy and the brothers commune with her in her home. A few hours later, they arrive at a beach where they set up camp. Jamie removes the thorns from the cactus, slices it, mashes and heats the leaves, and distills the broth into a clear liquid that, when drunk, will blow their minds. I like, though, that Silva doesn’t turn the movie into a through-their-eyes mescaline trip. There are no hallucinated images here, no imagined bogeymen. Rather, everyone simply partakes and waits. Champa and his brothers play soccer in the sand. Jamie and Crystal Fairy go off in separate directions by themselves.
This is Cera’s best performance – his truest and fullest. Jamie comes from privilege and feels a strong sense of entitlement, but believes he knows what he wants and may have space in his heart for human connection. As Crystal Fairy, Hoffmann is a force of nature. I especially treasured the quiet moments where she lets us know she’s in on the joke. Her reaction, say, when she traipses around their apartment naked and Jamie calls her “Crystal Hairy.” Or the way she pulls Pilo aside when she realizes he doesn’t want to take the intoxicant, pouring his out while making it sound like he’s drinking it down. Or the answer she gives when a whale researcher gives her a lift back to the beach – she’s gotten lost, and is once again naked – and asks her name.
“Crystal Fairy” is slight and nearly formless but comes from a place of real pain and kindness and hope. It’s one of the joyous surprises of the year in film.