"Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus" is an amusing booze-and-drug-fueled road trip, its travelers on a quest to experience the Holy Grail of highs.
Starring Michael Cera, Gaby Hoffmann and a trio of irresistibly charming Chilean brothers, the search for a slice of the famed San Pedro cactus with legendary hallucinogenic powers takes us through northern Chile's corner of the Atacama Desert. Scenic, short and slight, the film manages to avoid the tendency to make these sort of big-screen excursions more tedious than actual road trips.
As noble as the desire to achieve the perfect altered state may be, it makes for a looser-knit comic fable than we are used to from Sebastián Silva, the Chilean writer-director who crafted class differences into such sharply observed subversive pleasure in 2009's "The Maid."
Though Cera and Hoffmann have the featured roles, Silva has made "Crystal Fairy" very much a family affair, casting three of his brothers to fill out the Chilean part of the equation. Champa (Juan Andrés Silva), the eldest, has been recruited by his drug-loving, international backpacking friend, Jamie (Cera), to make the trip with him. Lel (José Miguel Silva) and Pilo (Agustín Silva) are more than happy to go along for the ride.
Fittingly it begins the night before with a party. Jammed with Champa's friends, there is music to dance to, an unlimited supply of alcohol and some of the finest coke that Jamie has snorted. There is also a wild American child wearing hippie rags, hoping for universal harmony and calling herself Crystal Fairy (Hoffmann). In Jamie's drugged-out state he invites her to join them on the road. But a morning-after conference nixes that idea and the guys hit the road with a promise to look for Crystal at one of their pit stops along the way.
Silva is always good with the details of human dynamics. As free-floating an exercise as this film is, the dialogue still carries a knowing insight. He's devised more of a clash of personality than culture in "Crystal," though language and customs do play a role. The narrative drifts effortlessly between English and Spanish with a good deal of fun in the Spanish asides.
The brothers are easygoing guys with a long history of making car rides and other inconveniences work. Jamie, on the other hand, is about as itchy as they come, his litany of irritations unbearable.
Cera is terribly unlikable here. I mean that as a compliment. His attempts to move beyond the sweet nerd roles that defined his early work are a welcome change.
Meanwhile, the Silvas are a fine lot, apparently used to letting Sebastián run the show. The director clearly knows how to play to their personalities. Juan Andrés' Champa is the typical older brother, forced into the peace-making role; José Miguel's Lel is the mischievous one in the middle; and Agustín's Pilo is the bashful youngest.
The hours on the road shift the mood from party central to contemplation. The hypnotic solitude of the Atacama is beautifully captured by cinematographer Cristián Petit-Laurent's lens.
Just as we've grown weary of Jamie, Crystal Fairy re-enters the film bringing new sources of conflict all rolled into a mostly naked bundle of complications. The actress is fearless in bearing all to create this particular free spirit. Absurd mystical pronouncements somehow become achingly poignant. Her casual nudity a statement in itself. You know the sketchbook she clutches has other stories to tell.
The town where they run into Crystal again also means they're in prime San Pedro growing area. The search gets serious and Jamie's obsession to get a precious piece of Pedro becomes a good comic break from the road.
In case we are missing the real point of this trip, Silva keeps circling back to the ways in which that singular focus on the elusive high means Jamie's missing all there is to experience in the here and now.
Not so the others. Crystal sketches, runs around naked and basically embraces everything and everyone she encounters. The brothers fish, swim, drink and generally horse around on the pristine beach where they finally pitch their tents.
Whether the San Pedro does its magic is of course the big question. Regardless, Silva works his, delivering not exactly the Holy Grail of road movies, but a very mellow summer high.
'Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus'
Rating: Not rated
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes; English and Spanish with English subtitles
Playing: At Landmark Nuart Theatre, West Los Angeles