When is a drug movie not a drug movie? When its director says so.
Since Crystal Fairy's debut at this year's Sundance Film Festival, its director Sebastián Silva has been adamant that his film does not belong in the drug movie subgenre, despite its focus on a small group of young adults (including Michael Cera and former child star Gaby Hoffmann) who are searching for the mescaline-producing San Pedro cactus in Chile.
"I don't want people to be disappointed, if [we] sell it as a drug movie," Silva told me earlier this week when we talked briefly at New York's Crosby Street Hotel in advance of today's limited theatrical and VOD release. "They do the San Pedro, which is fun, but it's not like Fear and Loathing. In this movie there's really nothing really visually trippy. It's really an objective way of portraying people taking drugs. You see it from outside. You never even hear them talk about seeing something that's not even there. They're never tripping out. They're just chilling."
To be fair, Silva has infused Crystal Fairy with some absurd flourishes that work well if you the viewer are under some influence while watching: Cera's character Jamie stares at the Bosch painting "The Garden of Earthly Delights" as horses sound in the distance; creeped out strings moan and pull into tune as Jamie sips coffee in a field; the screen flickers with The Exorcist's Pazuzu when the group encounters a strange doll. For the most part though, Crystal Fairy is a drug movie, it's just a different kind of drug movie. It's intimate and character-driven, sure, but a drug move nonetheless.
Filmed in Chile over the course of 12 days in 2011 when funding stalled for Magic Magic, another Silva-Cera collaboration that's out on video in August, Crystal Fairy had a loose outline based on an actual experience of Silva's. A lot of the dialogue was improvised, and the film has a shaky-cam naturalism. Movies do not need to feel real to be good, but when they do, they can affect the viewer intimately. That's what Crystal Fairy did to me.
I love this movie more than any I've seen this year, and much of my time talking to Silva and Cera was spent quoting lines and rehashing highlights. It strikes me as an instant classic that people will still be watching and obsessing about years from now, which has has everything to do with the performances. Hoffman in particular, as the titular Crystal Fairy, embodying the free-spirited, bushy hippie type who's part blowhard, part vessel of deep goodwill, and part mystical airhead. "Lived-in" only begins to describe Hoffmann's performance. You've met this person. I've met this person. Several times. My memories of each are fuzzy. When the group finds a place to stay for the night, Crystal Fairy says, "I've been here before." Jamie says, "When?" Crystal Fairy responds, "Exactly." Silva told me that was all Hoffman's invention.
Silva has also met Crystal Fairy before — literally. Hoffmann's character is based on an actual person named Crystal Fairy that Silva took mescaline with a few years ago. (For the record, all of the actors took mescaline while filming – Cera told me it didn't work on him, but Hoffman told Movieline that her trip was "great, but it was subtle.")
"[The real] Crystal Fairy had a shaved head," said Silva. "I asked Gaby if she could shave and she was like, 'No fucking way. I've been growing out this hair forever.' And then also, the confrontational aspects of Jamie and Crystal, that's total fiction. I really got along with Crystal when we went down to the desert. It was fun. She was so amusing. She was more out there. She had more scars. She was kind of a warrior. But there are some true elements to it, but it's pretty much fictionalized."
Those confrontational aspects drive the film. As the uglyish Americans who are accompanied by three locals (all played by Silva's real life brothers) during their trek through rural Chile, Crystal Fairy and Jamie have vastly different ways of expressing their equal amounts of stubbornness.
"The most important thing for me in this movie was the dynamic between Jamie and Crystal, the taking and giving," said Silva. "He would be nice here, and then he would get annoying, but it was because she was really annoying, so you root for Jamie. That was a very intricate sort of dynamic that I had to be extremely aware of in every single take, really. It's so complex."
There are moments of shaming that feel infuriating and moments of deep compassion that are beautiful. Besides its numerous quotable lines and several near-absurd sequences that its characters endearingly stumble into, what Crystal Fairy does best is show the communal side of drug-taking, the synthesized bonds that are omnipotent for a moment, and immortal in recollection.