Discovering in Michael Cera an impish ally he can use to drive other characters crazy, Chilean director Sebastian Silva (“The Maid”) made two bilingual features with the star back-to-back, bringing both to the Sundance Film Festival. Although “Crystal Fairy” earned an opening-night berth, once the dust settles, the sublimely unclassifiable midnight offering “Magic Magic” is destined to be remembered as “the good one.” Meticulously acted, gorgeously shot and hilariously insightful about the strange, inarticulable ways people can get on one another’s nerves, this psychological thriller takes its premise to surprising, darkly comic extremes, though its non-genre approach keeps things niche.
Cera may not be the protagonist, but he’s certainly the pic’s most interesting personality as Brink, an attention-seeking American in Chile who obnoxiously flaunts his grasp of the local language and customs in the face of newcomers. When Alicia (Juno Temple) arrives, clinging to her cousin Sarah (Emily Browning) to help ease her discomfort with her new surroundings, Brink titters rudely and cracks inside jokes at her expense in Spanish.
Early on, Brick represents such a uniquely unnerving character — a collection of weird tics and inappropriate sexual energy — it’s hard to process the subtle drama unfolding around him. Although Alicia flew in to spend time with her cousin, Sarah almost immediately bows out to attend to a personal problem, leaving the awkward Alicia to head south for a few days with her hypnotism-obsessed b.f. (the director’s brother Agustin), his taskmaster sister (Catalina Sandino Moreno) and the wild card that is Brink.
Ultimately, the success of Silva’s gripping chemistry experiment depends on the highly unstable dynamic he maintains among Alicia and her housemates. The director is hyper-attuned to the way in which every little detail edges things toward hysteria, while keeping the reactions of the characters compellingly unpredictable. The film never reaches the subjective, coming-apart-at-the-seams feel of “Repulsion” or “The Shining,” but it shares the goal of capturing the gradual unraveling of a seemingly rational mind.
“Magic Magic” sneaks up on auds, since neither the characters nor the viewer is capable of diagnosing the severity of Alicia’s condition. Here, once her mental agitation passes the point of no return, the consequences aren’t played for shock, but for a profound sense of tragedy that echoes last year’s “Beyond the Hills.”
At first, Alicia merely seems to be suffering from sleep deprivation and a slight persecution complex. Little things seem to set her off, as when Brink tries to adopt a mangy puppy from the side of the road, which puts the whimpering creature’s fate on her conscience, or worse, the way he shoots parrots for sport once they reach their destination, despite the fact that the birds’ constant squawking becomes an inescapable cacophony in her head.
Eventually, Sarah catches up with the group, restoring a measure of stability to Alicia’s high-anxiety vacation, although by this stage, whatever is bothering Alicia effectively has its hooks in her. The role calls for extreme vulnerability from whoever plays it, and Temple amazes as her character regresses to a petulant, preadolescent state, aided by makeup that withers her lips and draws dark circles under her eyes. Cera proves the perfect foil — the world’s unlikeliest bully, rendered all the stranger by a k.d. lang-style haircut and what appears to be a jealous fixation on Sarah’s b.f.
Alternating between English and Spanish, Cera subverts his own likability at every turn, while drawing from his comedic background to milk his behavior for perfectly timed laughs. Never once at risk of becoming a traditional comedy, “Magic Magic” nevertheless delights in tonal clashes (as when the group squirms to Cab Calloway’s jazz classic “Minnie the Moocher” as driving music) and the sheer specificity of behavioral detail it captures.
With dual d.p.s Christopher Doyle and Glenn Kaplan lending their eye to the mesmerizing widescreen compositions, the film takes on an ethereal, otherworldly quality, allowing Silva to slip into Alicia’s mindset without auds detecting the stylistic shift. Unlike the more improv-based “Crystal Fairy,” “Magic Magic” remains convincingly naturalistic despite its rigorously scripted design, brilliantly circling around to include puppy cries, that creepy Calloway song and other early ingredients in its startling final stretch.