In a season where women have been practically invisible at the megaplex — the main exception being Melissa McCarthy's gender-bent John Belushi act in The Heat — Gaby Hoffmann's star turn in the Chilean stoner comedy Crystal Fairy is doubly refreshing. Director Sebastian Silva and Hoffmann have the guts to create a female character as obnoxious as her male counterparts; better still, they don't stop at a one-dimensional caricature. Crystal Fairy (real name Isabel) is a would-be flower child, born more than a few decades too late, traveling through Chile. She's into chakras, casual nudity and putting "blessed" pebbles into her drinks, while avoiding the curses of sugar and shaving her armpits.
Crystal Fairy kicks off at a party where Jamie (Michael Cera) hangs out with his Chilean roommate Champa (the director's brother, Juan Andres Silva), drinking and doing lines of coke. He meets Crystal Fairy and gives her his phone number before setting off the next morning on a road trip with Champa and his brothers (played by Silva's other two brothers, Agustin and Jose Miguel). The four guys plan to acquire some of the mescaline-containing San Pedro cactus — Chile's answer to peyote — and take it on the beach. Jamie's plans change when Crystal Fairy calls his cellphone and asks if they can meet her along the way.
A psychedelic sensibility hovers around the edges of some of this year's best films, like Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers and Shane Carruth's Upstream Color. A recovering addict himself, Korine has acknowledged that he wants Spring Breakers to make the spectator feel like he or she is on drugs. Psychedelic drugs are central to the plot of Crystal Fairy, but they don't really inform the film's style, which relies on rough, grainy cinematography. If it makes fun of stoners, it's not an anti-drug film: Crystal Fairy experiences a positive, if painful, emotional epiphany after her trip.
Cera and Hoffmann refine the obnoxiousness of their characters to a perfect pitch. His two main conversational topics are drugs and how much he dislikes her. She's not so self-absorbed that she doesn't realize she's spending lots of time with guys who barely tolerate her presence, but she doesn't seem to care. The Chileans, meanwhile, act as subtitled voices of reason — the fact that neither Jamie nor Crystal Fairy speaks Spanish allows them to speak truths no one else will say out loud.
The film — which was shot in 12 days while Cera and Silva awaited financing for their other 2013 release, Magic Magic — appears to have been made with a fairly cheap video camera, and Silva's direction often seems haphazard. The characters pass through some amazing landscapes, but Crystal Fairy doesn't dwell on them. If the movie were merely an exercise in mocking ugly-American tourists and neo-hippies, it would be pretty pointless.
But Silva sees subtleties in Jamie's and Crystal Fairy's behavior that a more snide film might overlook. They may be assholes most of the time, but they're capable of small gestures of kindness that make Crystal Fairy a diverting ride. It's probably a good idea that they're not going to be spending a great deal more time together, but their trip turns out not to be a waste.