Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus (2013) is a drug movie that is not really about drugs as much as a group of people who use them as an excuse for a pilgrimage in search of meaning. Written and directed by Sebastian Silva, the movie can be viewed in a number of ways.
On one level, it really is about the modern fascination with the transformative potential of psychedelic experiences. It’s also a kind of anthropological study of contemporary backpackers who drift around the world seeking memorable experiences. Finally, it reveals how people in other countries (Chile in this case) have very stereotyped views of Americans -which are, no doubt, justified in many cases.
Even though the film is about a group of youths -2 Americans and a group of Chileans, the spotlight is on the Americans, who are indeed stereotypes. Jamie (Michael Cera) is obnoxious, impatient and immature. He apparently lives from one drug experience to the next. He is obsessed with finding the hallucinogenic San Pedro cactus, a mission for which he recruits his native Chilean friends (Juan Andres Silva, Agustin Silva and Jose Miguel Silva).
Joining them is Crystal Fairy (Gaby Hoffmann), who is -if her name doesn’t give this away- a flaky, new age-hippie type who spouts spiritual platitudes and psychobabble. The film is largely about the ongoing tension between Jamie and Crystal Fairy, as the others in the group look on with resigned amusement at the antics of the crazy Americans.
Crystal Fairy does, however, manage to be more than a superficial portrayal of annoying American travelers. Both Jamie and Crystal Fairy evolve to some degree and become actual individuals. While the San Pedro cactus plays a role in this, it is not really the dominant factor. In fact, the film only deals very briefly with the psychoactive experiences of the drug. Much more time is spent cataloging their quest for the plant and the elaborate preparations of it. When the characters finally reveal something of their true selves to one another, we get the idea that it’s less due to the cactus than that they were simply tired of all the posturing.
Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus is a slow paced character study that will disappoint people who are expecting action, sex, raunchy humor or intense portrayals of people tripping (though there is considerable female nudity). The performances are quite realistic, which almost works against the film at times, considering how unlikable the two protagonists are in many scenes.
This film’s realism is grounded in the fact that much of the dialogue was improvised. Furthermore, the director and Chilean actors are brothers. According to IMDB, Cera actually lived with the Silva family to prepare for the film. So the naturalistic style of the film did not have to be faked.
Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus is a small film that is quite engaging in places while it drags in others. It does not offer any profound insights into psychoactive substances, but nor does it pretend to. Nevertheless, it will be of interest to anyone who studies this topic -or anyone who is fascinated by the myriad forms human interactions can take.