Sundance Review: 'Crystal Fairy'

This review was originally published on January 18, 2013 as part of's coverage of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

Up until tonight, I never spent much time thinking about Gaby Hoffmann. For me, at least, her most memorable role was being upstaged by Natalie Portman in Woody Allen's "Everyone Says I Love You" back in 1996. After seeing her play the titular role in Sebastian Silva's "Crystal Fairy" (whose nifty animated credits sequence present the title as "Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus and 2012") I am compelled to revisit her entire CV to try to find the roots of this remarkable, funny and touching performance.

It may be hard to spot, though, because a film like "Crystal Fairy" is hard to come by. It is a shaggy dog road movie, and a drug-hazy one at that, but beneath the silliness and character-based gags, "Crystal Fairy" is, I feel, an unusually insightful look at self-imposed false identities and group dynamics. But don't let that scare you off. It is, by and large, just a lot of funny moments.

The film opens with Michael Cera living in Chile, for some reason. He and his roommate (a local, one of three brothers named with the last name Silva, but not the director) are at a party getting high. Cera is a judgmental jerk, and certainly the butt of the joke, but also a little bit sympathetic in his honesty.

He sees a spaced-out hippie dancing to her own groove. "She's like a dark tornado," he says, but ends up inviting her out on a planned beach trip to take psychoactive drugs and "open the doors of perception."  She calls herself Crystal Fairy and, even though Cera's forgotten about her once he sobers up, she appears and brings her radical freewheelingism with her.

Crystal Fairy is not a manic pixie dream girl. Quite the opposite. She's actually quite annoying, but then again, so is Cera. But her annoying qualities come from a place of being nice, while Cera's insecurities make him nasty. The push and pull between them (and among the three Silva brothers) resembles Polanski's "Knife in the Water" more than any other young persons' comedy, but before anything gets too serious there's the business of trying to find a San Pedro cactus.

Wikipedia confirms that there are, indeed, cacti that grow in Chile that, when scraped, boiled and drank cause psychedelic experiences. The quest to find the stuff, however, involves asking little old ladies to sell their landscaping. Beyond the comedy, though, we get a peek at the turmoil that's hollowing out Cera. He wants drugs to fit in, to be cool, obviously, and his attitude in acquiring them is greedy and monstrous.

Crystal Fairy, however, is all Zen and smiles, but in time it starts to seem like a put-on. Maybe she's not all rainbows and magic breathing exercises? I don't care how wide-eyed and trusting you are, you don't strut around nude in front of four men for such a prolonged period of time. This reaches a head when they (finally, finally) drink their brew and Cera accuses Crystal Fairy of "faking it" when she instantly starts seeing faces in the rocks.

There are third-act revelations I don't intend to spoil, but I will proactively defend them as being honest and earned. I've met women like Crystal Fairy (and have a little bit more of Michael Cera's character in me than I'd like to admit) so anyone who thinks these characters are false just needs to get out more.

The three Chilean brothers come out looking the most level-headed, and considering that it is never once explained what the heck the two Americans are doing there, this clearly has a soupçon of commentary to it.

"Crystal Fairy" does get a little heavy toward the end (I had flashes of "Breakfast Club," but only in the best possible way) and the characters really are quite something. Most importantly, though, this is a comedy, and the low-key, goofy first two-thirds are a trip worth taking.

SCORE: 8.5 / 10

*Note, "Crystal Fairy" is one of two Sebastian Silva films with Michael Cera playing at Sundance 2013. The other is "Magic Magic" and will make for an interesting comparison.