Filminism: 'Crystal Fairy' and the Trouble with Traumatized Female Characters

crystal fairy


Filminism is a bi-weekly column about representations of women in film. It runs on alternating Fridays.


As the eponymous Crystal Fairy in Sebastián Silva's new movie (read our review here), Gaby Hoffman's performance grounds a flighty, difficult character that might otherwise have become another entry in the Annals of Manic Pixie Dream Girl Infamy. She loves crystals, she has armpit hair, and she might be a little smelly. She has terrible boundaries and even worse decision-making skills, but perhaps she has excellent intuition to make up for it. We would have probably been friends in college. What's entirely disappointing about the whole venture is that her eccentricities are explained away with the same old excuse filmmakers and writers have depended on forever: sexual trauma. Rape is a lazy way to give a character added depth.

Crystal's foil Jamie, played by Michael Cera, doesn't reveal anything on par with the gang rape Crystal tearfully details around the fire, at the tail end of their mescaline trip. He's the kind of pretentious liberal arts dude that heads Chile on some Kerouac-ian adventure to find the San Pedro plant, telling everyone along the way about the wonders of "The Doors of Perception." Even though he's seeking enlightenment through San Pedro, he's so uptight he could crap diamonds. We see glimpses of his humanity, especially when he succumbs to a full-blown panic attack during his trip, but where's his deep dark secret? Why is he a smarmy, entitled putz? Other than just being a white, middle class, liberal arts kinda dude, of course, but isn't that just as lazy a characterization?

Also Check Out: Our interview with Michael Cera & Sebastián Silva

Another part of the problem is that Crystal Fairy is the most interesting character among them. She's just as dogmatic in her own way, with her "magical pebbles" and walking around naked like, "Oh, does my pubic hair bother you?" type of lectures. (As an aside, it is cool to see a woman's body that's not as meticulously manicured as a bonsai.) Her attempts at provocation come from the same sort of place as Jamie's, this need to prove she's above whatever bougie societal strictures placed upon us all. Still, she's more empathetic, even at her most obnoxious.

Frankly, I'm not sure I even want to know more about Jamie, and we barely get a glimpse of the inner lives of their hosts/friends/guides Champa (Juan Andrés Silva), Lel (José Miguel Silva), and Pilo (Agustín Silva).

But we want more of Crystal, because that's how audiences are. We're greedy and nosy, and we want to know where they come from and where they're going, and most importantly, how it all ends. It's the job of the writer and director to know when to pull back, when to leave us wanting and dreaming and curious.

Instead, Silva gives it to us. The whole, tragic megillah.

As an added bonus of what-the-f*ckery, she also used to work as a dominatrix, which Jamie (Michael Cera) discovers when he's rifling through her stuff. That particular flourish is incredibly puzzling; one might, as Silva has done, try to connect the dots of Crystal's actions with the aftereffects of a group rape, but tossing in a few Polaroids of her pegging a client makes little sense in context. It shouldn't have to be pointed out that not all sex workers have histories of abuse or assault. If we're gonna go with the whole gang rape thing, why not toss in a monologue about sacred sexuality and reclaiming her body, etc. etc. ad infinitum?

It would have been fine to leave Crystal Fairy as she is, a wanna-be mystic with no past and no discernible future, as inscrutable as she seems when we first meet her. It's nice seeing the group wandering around the beach and its environs tripping, occasionally panicking, definitely getting very lost, but also laughing and acting like children. Jamie's icky grasping for this sacred plant and its transformative properties has at least paid off a little. And if we're to have any empathy for Crystal as a person, at least we can take comfort that maybe she finds peace from confiding in these near-strangers she'll never see again.

The scene of them around the fire is moving, but only because of Hoffman's ability to make it so. It's some relief that Jamie doesn't seem to learn much from Crystal. She's not there to enlighten him or teach him anything. She's there because she's on a journey, too. He's confused, and that's just fine. People are confusing.

"Crystal Fairy" is more than a simple road trip movie, although that's a great deal of its pleasure. And it's more than a chronicle of cringeworthy American tourist behavior, although if you can sit through the scene of Jamie stealing a giant cactus from someone's yard without wanting to smack him, you might yourself be a cringeworthy American tourist. It's sort of a drug movie, in that their goal is to find and take drugs, and that some of the most enjoyable and insightful scenes are when they're tripping on the beach. It would have been fine to simply leave it at that.

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