This review was originally published on January 23, 2013 as part of Film.com's coverage of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
"Magic, Magic" is the visually stunning and mentally harrowing tale of a vacation that becomes an eerie nightmare.
Alicia (Juno Temple) is a timid American abroad, visiting her cousin Sarah (Emily Browning) in South America. Sarah's friend Barbara (Catalina Sandino Moreno), boyfriend Agustín (Agustín Silva) and his best friend Brink (Michael Cera) attempt to make Alicia feel welcome as they head out on vacation, but when Sarah must stay behind for mysterious reasons, Alicia is left in the company of strangers. The fact that she doesn't speak Spanish doesn't help, and when the group reaches their island vacation, she feels even more isolated without cell reception. Alicia has trouble sleeping, and it isn't long before she becomes totally unhinged, her troubling but seemingly innocuous tics developing into something far more threatening.
Writer/director Sebastián Silva has another film at Sundance this year with some superficial similarities. Michael Cera and Sebastián's brother Agustín also appear in "Crystal Fairy," and both were shot in Chile. However, "Crystal Fairy" is much more of a comedy, whereas "Magic, Magic" is a dark, dangerous thriller. Half the film is in Spanish and half in English, but the two are seamlessly combined and the effect is often hilarious rather than distracting.
Juno Temple's performance is outstanding, walking the line between vaguely annoying and completely sympathetic. Her portrayal of a young woman on the brink of insanity is rich, intricate and enormously detailed. Temple completely submits herself to the role without shame or self-consciousness, unafraid to do whatever is necessary to create a convincing portrait of fevered helplessness. Our shaky heroine is nothing without a villain, and Michael Cera performs wonderfully as the wannabe debonair son of a diplomat who's ostensibly attempting to woo Alicia, while obviously grappling with a severe insecurity of his own.
Silva's film recalls elements of Roman Polanski's apartment trilogy, especially the fascination with sexuality and female body horror, the alienation of ourselves and the potential for destruction that lurks within the hearts of all people. The lines between reality and nightmare are blurred even further as the terror spreads from one frightened girl to the entire group of island-dwellers. The imagery is dark but beautiful, and the film is gorgeously shot by legendary cinematographer Christopher Doyle.
Skillfully manipulating emotions and calling reality into question, Silva doesn't rely on cheap tricks such as loud noises or needless scares, but presents us with the most truly terrifying proving ground — the mind. Losing your mind is to lose your self, and the fear of becoming lost to ourselves and others is a fertile ground for horror. Coupled with a deepening sense of dread and a suspicion of the very people we're supposed to trust, and you've a recipe for terrific terror. Funny and very strange, "Magic, Magic" is not only one of the best films at Sundance, but Silva is one of the strongest new voices in horror, even if he has no interest in limiting himself to the genre.
SCORE: 9.0 / 10