Film review: Crystal Fairy And The Magical Cactus

This ramshackle and surprisingly entertaining road movie finds Michael Cera chipping away once again at the nervy, innocent, sweet-natured persona he honed to such lucrative and endearing effect in Juno, Superbad and the cult TV show, Arrested Development.

Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus
Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus
Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus


Directed by: Sebastián Silva

Starring: Michael Cera, Gaby Hoffman, Juan Andrés Silva, Augustin Silva, José Miguel Silva

Star rating: * * * *

Set in Chile and shot on the fly in a mixture of Spanish and English, the film casts Cera as Jamie, an annoying American traveller, who is too consumed with his own pretentious desire to experience life in all its intoxicating forms to realise that he’s actually missing out on much of what’s going on around him.

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Despite his unlikeable nature, however, he’s becomes friends with his roommate Champa, a laid-back local with whom he’s planning to travel up the coast in order to consume a psychotropic cactus. Their trip, however, is complicated when a coked-up Jamie invites a similarly over-bearing American hippy girl called Crystal Fairy (Gaby Hoffman) to join them.

Too obliterated to realise that she’s the sort of person who will take him up on such an insincere offer, Jamie along with Champa (played by Juan Andrés Silva, brother of the film’s director Sebastián Silva) and Champa’s along-for-the-ride brothers (played by Agustín 
Silva and José Miguel Silva, the director’s other siblings) find themselves babysitting this flake as they hunt down an elusive cactus and search out the perfect spot to consume it.

What follows is an amusing, insightful tale about finding oneself in a foreign land, where trying on different identities, even ones that don’t quite fit, can be a necessary, enriching and humorous experience.

That may sound a bit worthy, but the film itself is just funny, driven as it is by Cera and Hoffman’s brazen performances – the former unafraid of being an obnoxious bore, the latter bravely letting it all hang out (quite literally) as Crystal Fairy, or as she soon becomes known, “Crystal Hairy”.

They’re maddening characters, but the film isn’t, largely thanks to the way it invites us to identify not with these bizarre interlopers, but with the fraternal trio observing them with bemused geniality from the sidelines.

Though produced by Pablo Larrain – better known in arthouse circles for his disturbing trilogy exploring the fall-out from the Pinochet coup d’état (Tony Manero, Post Mortem, No) – this feels very much like a Chilean riff on Y Tu Mamá También, particularly as it brings proceedings to a head in a way that’s emotionally satisfying without betraying the characters.

Kiss the Water (PG)

Directed by: Eric Steel

Star rating: * * * *

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When she died in 2001 at the age of 86, Brora native Megan Boyd had become famous in angling circles around the world for her delicately handcrafted fishing flies.

Sought after almost as much for their beauty as their functionality (they were, apparently, very good for catching large salmon), they helped her acquire a rarefied clientele that included Prince Charles and made her popular in a way that was sometimes at odds with the life of solitude that she seemed to crave.

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That she also tended to dress like a man and lived by herself for much of her adult life in an isolated cottage with no electricity or phone only made her eccentric artisanal lifestyle all the more intriguing – so much so that America’s newspaper of record, The New York Times, ran a detailed obituary when she passed away.

It was this article that reeled in US documentary-maker Eric Steel (The Bridge). So hooked was he by the romance of her story that he proceeded to travel to the Highlands to make this fantastic little film, which celebrates both her life and the strange wonders of salmon fishing.

What’s particularly lovely about his approach is the way he uses the unexplained mystery of the latter (why do salmon take flies when they don’t feed in fresh water?) as a nifty metaphor to puzzle over the central contradiction of Boyd’s own life – namely her devotion to creating an object used to kill fish when she apparently couldn’t abide the thought of such things. Was she – perhaps like the salmon themselves – simply attracted to the prettiness of the objects? Or did this fiercely independent woman perfect her craft as a way of casting about for company from people with whom she might not otherwise have had the temerity to engage?

Steel maintains a pleasing air of mystery throughout, ruminating speculatively on Boyd’s inner life by interspersing the charming reminiscences of friends, colleagues and associates (her excuse for not meeting the Queen is as amusing as the subsequent response it inspired from Buckingham Palace) with artist Em Cooper’s dreamy, oil painting-inspired animations. The effect is quietly mesmerizing – a documentary fishing expedition that gently and patiently reads its subject so as not to ruin the transcendent pleasure that comes from trying to get a line on such an odd fish.

After Tiller (15)

Directed by: Martha Shane, Lana Wilson

Star rating: * * * *

George Tiller was a Kansas-based abortion doctor murdered in 2009 while attending his local church. As one of the few doctors willing to perform contentious third-trimester terminations, Tiller was the bête noire of pro-life movement and his murder – especially because of its location – was greeted by some of the more fanatical factions as a punishment from God.

Perhaps as a result, this wrenching but sobering film about the four remaining doctors in America still willing to perform abortions after 25 weeks doesn’t attempt to seriously engage with those who oppose what they do.

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And yet, nor does it function as a pro-choice polemic. Instead, it strives to present the realities of a difficult and dangerous occupation with tact and honesty, as well as an absence of inflammatory language. There’s no denial, for instance, of what the procedure involves at this stage.

Yet for these doctors, context is everything and without understanding the way in which cases are debated and talked through at length, or how difficult decisions are arrived at everyday, the procedure can’t help but sound – as one practitioner puts it – “barbaric”.

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It’s that kind of candour that makes After Tiller a valuable contribution to the debate.