July 24 2013 03:53 PM

Michael Cera and Gabby Hoffman find fear and loathing in Chilean road film

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Michael Cera is awkward and angry.
During the course of his career, Michael Cera has cornered the market on playing fidgety, insecure nerds. Whether it's talking to girls, facing down opponents or even the simple act of breathing, Cera's characters make every action look uncomfortable.

But his feeble frame and sarcastic sense of self-loathing often camouflages an internal courage that one doesn't expect until he blooms strength right before your eyes. Cera's massive buildup of repression eventually explodes like a geyser. Take, for example, Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, the only film thus far that has successfully channeled the actor's brand of heroic anti-masculinity.

Cera's aggravating turn in Sebastián Silva's oddly entrancing Crystal Fairy—opening Friday, July 26, at the Ken Cinema—is another beast entirely. On vacation in Chile, his Jamie depicts every trait usually associated with a typical ugly American: insensitive, arrogant, selfish and pushy. But his narcissism goes deeper than simple rude obliviousness. Jamie's personality is acidic and judgmental in a way that takes passive aggression to a high art form.

Most of the time Jamie's host, Champa (Juan Andrés Silva), kindly ignores these flaws, opting to include him in various adventures like a road trip to the Atacama Desert to find a local cactus that can be boiled down into a psychedelic agent. The night before Champa and his two younger brothers are set to leave, Jamie drunkenly invites another traveling American named Crystal Fairy (Gaby Hoffman) to join them, only to become quietly enraged when she actually takes him up on the offer the next day.

As awkward and overbearing as Jamie is with nearly every social interaction, Crystal seems perfectly at ease with her new-age, flower-child self. The contrast in demeanors makes Silva's film initially obnoxious. Jamie's tantrums are mind-numbing and boorish, while Crystal's spirituality feels deathly contrived and thin. Having them in the same car traps the viewer in a hostile space without any escape route.

Over time, though, these masks begin to reveal actual people underneath. Silva allows each scene to progress at a very lethargic pace; a few days' time protracts into what feels like weeks. The film's hazy visual look accentuates this feeling, as does the characters' rambling dialogue, creating a space where moments unfold at an instinctual pace. It's as if Crystal were directing a film about Jamie, and not the other way around.

The drugged-out beach sequence that ends Crystal Fairy culminates in a campfire concession that seems fittingly random. Even though Jamie and Crystal grow closer simply because of proximity and time, the divide between them will always be vast due to their contrasting views of the world. Jamie is the center of his own universe, while Crystal obsessively soaks in the experiences of others. Silva is less interested in judging either character than placing them in the same frame and seeing what happens.

This approach is interesting to an extent, but ultimately the story buckles under the pressure of its own ambiguity. Is there anything more to Jamie besides a crippling pattern of neediness and egotism? Will he ever change? Is Crystal simply a free spirit at peace with her own past trauma? We'll never know.

If Crystal Fairy captures one unnerving aspect of a vacation gone sideways, it's how some people pretend to want collective improvisation when, in reality, they just desire structure and personal control. The way Jamie dictates the trip at every turn is horrific. He's certain of only one thing: His experience, no matter how warped, is the most important.

Write to glennh@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com.

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