It would be a little too easy to write off Crystal Fairy, Sébastien Silva’s third film, as a slight and unimpressionable assembly of countless tired indie tropes. From the American youth thirsting for world-changing experiences in an exotic foreign locale, to the enticing allure of the “manic pixie dream girl,” and even to that obligatory staging of a mind-bending, drug-addled trip, most of the ingredients needed to piece together another generic “American boy abroad” flick are there. Yet Silva, a Chilean director, works to demystify that quasi-imperialist movie formula, thereby imbuing upon his (mostly) English-language debut a refreshingly bent quality. Crystal Fairy is a deceptively slight, often frustrating and roundly oddball little movie. Yet that frustrating, oddball quality is precisely what gives the work its personality.
Most of this movie is seen through Jamie (Michael Cera, returning to acting after his work as Consulting Producer on Arrested Development), an American spending some time abroad in Chile. Whether Jamie is there to study, or whether he is simply there on vacation, is never made completely clear. We do know he speaks virtually no Spanish, and expects his friend Champa (Juan Andréas Silva) to translate on his behalf, even when he brings home with him a couple of prostitutes to use illicit drugs (no sex, it seems – just drugs). Speaking of drugs, we also know Jamie’s most pressing ambition seems to be traveling with Champa and his brothers (all members of the Silva clan, including Sébastien) to a remote beach, all for the purposes of procuring and reaping the mescaline-addled benefits of the San Pedro Cactus.
There seems to be no other motivations for Jamie: not learning the language, not forging a close-knit relationship with his new Chilean friends, and certainly not studying a unique culture. No, Jamie’s ambitions are strictly hallucinatory.
The night before the big road trip, a strung-out Jamie carelessly invites an American girl he meets at a party (Gaby Hoffman), a free-spirit type who goes by the name “Crystal Fairy.” Unexpectedly, she takes him up on the offer, and takes a bus down to meet up with Jamie and the Silva boys. The now-sober Jamie finds Crystal Fairy far more off-putting than he previously realized. Sporting matted, unkempt hair, grungy clothes, unshaved armpits and a generically new-agey philosophy on life and existence, Jamie cruelly nicknames her “Crystal Hairy” and seizes every possible opportunity to say derisive things about her to their Chilean hosts.
Jamie only thinly veils that hostility toward his invitee, but the mellow Crystal Fairy brushes it off with relentless niceties and roughly one ocean’s worth of patience. Like her American counterpart, Crystal does not speak Spanish either, but her positive demeanor transcends language and she eventually seems to win over Champa and his buddies. As the Chileans’ affection for Crystal Fairy waxes, their patience with Jamie clearly wanes. Jamie’s boorishness and steadfast obsession with cooking a San Pedro cactus overcome his sense of tact, and in one of the movie’s more informative moments, Champa steals a private moment with one of his friends to explain how frustrated he is getting with Jamie. In a generous attempt at empathy, the friend reminds him that Jamie “came all the way down here for this experience.”
Waning patience. Mild hostility. Bountiful positivity. These are not emotions that transpose very easily onto film. Even Silva’s filmmaking, while not without its own idiosyncratic quality, feels roundly subdued throughout. Crystal Fairy is a story about small, decidedly un-dramatic emotions, speaking to them with such lightness that it would be easy to argue the notion that little of consequence is actually happening.
Considering how dangerously close Jamie’s Ugly American schtick comes to overpowering those smaller emotions, it’s probably tough to refute that notion as well. It’s difficult to tell whether the movie’s Jamie problem can be faulted with Silva’s desire for a conventionally distinctive protagonist, or Cera’s earnest desire to break away from his unfortunate typecast, or whether there even is a Jamie problem at all. Yet there is nonetheless a persistently one-note quality to him that ultimately makes him a less compelling character than even his Chilean “friends,” who are mostly taciturn and remain on the periphery.
It is not until his oafishness fully destructs Crystal Fairy’s threshold for abuse that any sense of dynamism within Jamie becomes apparent. Well… that, and a rather unexpected outcome of finally ingesting that damn cactus. While Cera does grapple nicely with his character’s eventual reflection on his own actions, I actually would dare credit this pivot to the performance of Gaby Hoffmann. You are more likely to remember Hoffmann from her time as a child actor, working on movies like Uncle Buck and Field of Dreams, but it is better now to realize how seriously grounded and complex her work is now that she’s all grown up.
Of course, Crystal’s waif-like disposition is merely a façade used to shield herself from her own vulnerability. Once that vulnerability gets wrung out, both because her patience is tested and because it is so clear how desperately she yearns to make a connection with these men, Hoffmann conveys those emotions in truly surprising ways. Even if she is the kind of personality you typically loathe in movies, Hoffman’s Crystal Fairy is a creation of absolute sunshine, so aggressively unlikeable that your heart gently breaks for her in the movie’s final, quietly devastating monologue. If she is meant to be perceived as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Silva has imbued her with a humanistic twist that makes her feel utterly more real.
Really, though, the Manic Pixie is but one of the many tired tropes that Silva twists here. So much of Crystal Fairy feels familiar enough to make the story feel recognizable – this could theoretically have been a road trip any of us might have taken – yet just twisted enough to give the story some idiosyncrasy. Silva is unafraid to toy with characters’ likeability – even if it doesn’t always work – and he is willing to explore stories and people whose life events we might usually find too mundane for the movies. Yet the film’s emotional stakes, while low-key, feel more relatable than anything we might see in whatever blockbuster playing in theaters this weekend. You may be sick of road trip movies. You may be sick of Michael Cera. You may be sick of non-narrative road trip flicks and you might be done with Manic Pixies. But you may still want to give Crystal Fairy a chance, if only to see a fresh spin on a cavalcade of old ideas. Don’t write it off.
Bottom Line: Crystal Fairy is a charmingly low-key road movie, featuring a superb performance from former child actress Gaby Hoffman.