A selfish man-child’s Chilean quest to drink mescaline extracted from a San Pedro cactus turns into a more conventional sort of trip in “Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus and 2012,” writer-director Sebastian Silva’s emphatically goofy but ultimately sentimental coming-of-age comedy. Engaging perfs by Michael Cera in the lead and Gaby Hoffmann as a hippie chick along for the ride exclusively elevate a pic that promotes the pleasures of altered consciousness, but proves insufficiently psychedelic itself. Commercial prospects appear even more marginal than those for the average drug farce, as counterculture auds will be left jonesing for a stronger dose.
Silva (“The Maid”) has spoken publicly of “Crystal Fairy” as a semi-autobiographical reflection on a wild episode in his younger days, which makes sense as his insights into the protagonist’s behavior, most of it brazenly immature, are the film’s sharpest by far. Jamie (Cera), a twentysomething American thrillseeker in Chile, is introduced as a full-time partier, smoking pot and snorting coke with the manic zeal of someone eager to avoid anything that remotely resembles adult responsibility.
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Unfiltered in conversation and impetuous to the core, Jamie gets blasted at a party and invites a total stranger — a loopy flower child who calls herself Crystal Fairy (Hoffmann) — to accompany him, his buddy Champa (Juan Andres Silva) and Champa’s two younger brothers (Jose Miguel Silva, Agustin Silva) to the Atacama desert, where they’ll pry open the doors of perception with the aid of the titular plant. But when his buzz fades, so does his interest in Crystal Fairy, who shocks him with her own impulsivity, having hopped a bus to meet the boys en route north.
Although the group’s three brothers (played by the director’s own) fail to register except as near-silent partners in the escapade, the film’s first half is thoroughly amiable and occasionally hilarious, with dialogue and situations gaining authenticity from Silva’s deft coordination of the actors’ on-set improv. Hoffman’s Crystal Fairy, full of New Age spirituality and body hair, is by turns lovably free-spirited and overbearingly crass, eliciting no shortage of eye-rolls and muttered slurs from Cera’s jittery young addict, who eventually snatches a large slice of cactus from an old woman’s garden and cradles it as if it were a newborn baby.
Everything builds to the quintet’s beachfront mescaline trip, the details of which supply Silva with only a mild quantity of hallucinatory stylistics while Jamie’s consciousness evolves in more predictably sober terms. It’s ironic — and buzz-killing to say the least — that a movie about mind expansion would narrow itself into a formula familiar from any number of earnest made-for-cable youth pics.
Widescreen cinematography by Cristian Petit-Laurent, much of it handheld, looks aptly rough around the edges without making much use of northern Chile’s natural beauty or of a daytripper’s warped visions. Post-production sound work by Roberto Espinoza does have some fun twiddling knobs to approximate Jamie’s auditory experience, although, in keeping with Cera’s effortlessly magnetic turn, the pic’s key special effect is the actor’s frizzy mop top.