Sebastian Silva's 2009 film The Maid examined the physical and psychological demands of working as a nearly indentured live-in housekeeper, and the toll taken by more than 20 years in the same household.
Perhaps in part because Silva based the film on his childhood growing up in Santiago, Chile, the approach to a subject rife with issues of social class was more personal than overtly political.
In Crystal Fairy and the Magic Cactus, a road-trip film based in part on his own experience, Silva is interested in the limits of empathy, and in our capacity for cruelty when compassion is refused. Its story considers two young, privileged Americans traveling — or just wandering, really — in Chile, and what's gained and lost when their polar-opposite worldviews collide.
In his first of two collaborations with the director (Silva's psychological thriller Magic Magic is due out later this summer), actor Michael Cera plays Jamie, an American staying in Santiago. What he does or why he's there isn't directly addressed; indeed, Silva doesn't provide more about his characters than their behavior, his verite shooting style unobtrusively capturing their naturalistic conversations.
The dialogue was improvised, but the sense of character that emerges from it is remarkably clear: At a party with his roommate, Champa (Juan Andres Silva), Jamie takes a hit, does a line, and finds someone to criticize.
He isn't quite the completely self-absorbed, cocaine-fueled jerk Cera imagined himself as in this summer's apocalyptic comedy This Is the End, but Jamie is no prince; he'll turn out to be one of those people most comfortable when sitting in judgment of someone — anyone, really. His go-to tactic for connecting with another person is finding an ally to share his disdain.
With Jamie under the influence, though, his worst tendencies are tempered. When he sees the girl he'll know only as Crystal Fairy (Gaby Hoffmann) dancing moodily amid the lively vibe of the party, he's quick to criticize, but soon the coke has him befriending her — this curiosity he's just described as "a lonely tornado" — and urging her to come on the road trip the guys are about to make. The destination: the beaches of northern Chile, and an appointment with a little mescaline.
He means what he says, at least in the moment, but Jamie isn't great at follow-up. His promise, on the way home from the party, to cook dinner for a couple of sex workers results in no food, more coke, and his waking up the next day hung over and holding up the trip — and in that condition, Jamie has no interest in bringing Crystal Fairy along. Champa, far more tolerant, insists they honor the previous night's invitation.
Cera has flirted with unlikability before, adding it as one shaded-in aspect of otherwise nice-guy characters, but he goes at it hard here and makes Jamie an insufferable, frustrated child. Scrounging for a San Pedro cactus from which to extract the mescaline, for instance, Jamie unravels when he runs into a local who isn't interested in his money — an older woman living alone, who invites the group into her home to sit and talk before considering selling. Jamie, impatient at the delay, takes matters into his own hands, and when the group has run off, Silva lets his camera linger on the woman looking out her window, aware how little she figures into the thoughts of the gringo who took a machete to her garden.
Jamie's baseline toolishness could sink the film, were Silva not so patient in exposing the shreds of humanity buried deep beneath the character's callousness. Crystal Fairy is the driving force in that discovery process, but she's no Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Hoffman's unselfconscious performance may read as cliche at first — she's a chakra-toting, love-preaching free spirit unbothered by social conventions about clothing — but Jamie's naked hostility chips away at her cheery veneer, revealing someone choosing optimism when she's got plenty of reason to feel otherwise.
On their own, Crystal and Jamie might be two of the worst road-trip companions imaginable; when one gets going, it's easy to identify with the other's frustration. But together — fueled by drugs, forced to share a space, separated from what they take for granted — they reconsider how they value the people who are not ... them.
And eventually, at the shores of the Pacific, Silva offers a glimpse at the potential contained in a life-changing experience, but wisely refuses to make a pronouncement about how it will play out for his antiheroes. For Jamie, as for anyone else, it's the follow-up that will make the moment meaningful, whether as the beginning of a sea change, or as merely an instant of clarity that's soon to pass.