PARK CITY - Movies about drug experiences are, in general, a very strange type of film.  They are either movies like the Oliver Stone school of thought, where a filmmaker uses every technique and effect possible to try to reproduce the sensation of being on a drug, visually and aurally, or they are films where we are watching characters deal with the sensations, more external experiences, and in art as in life, it can be incredibly dull to watch someone else drink or smoke or trip.

"Crystal Fairy & The Magic Cactus And 2012" tells the story of a young American named Jamie who is living in Chile for a while, desperate for experience, open to pretty much anything he can get his hand on.  Michael Cera is perfectly cast in the role, and this is a lovely, nuanced turn from him.  As the film opens, he's at a party with his friend Champa, played by Juan Andrea Silva, and Jamie's one of those guys who has decided that taking drugs is his thing.  He's read Aldous Huxley.  He's read some Terrence McKenna.  He's ready to have his heroic experiences, and so he's pretty much always saying yes.  He smokes some weed, tries some coke, drinks whatever's being served, and he and Champa are planning a trip to the beach, where they are going to prepare some San Pedro cactus and take a mescaline trip.  There's a sort of young-man's urgency to the way Jamie tries things.  He's looking for that moment where taking these drugs is more than a diversion, where it actually changes him.  He wants to be transformed.  He's ready to be the person who can speak about these things with authority instead of the person reading about the ones who have already done it.

At the party, Jamie can't help but make fun of a girl he sees dancing, and when he talks to her, he realizes she's American as well.  She introduces herself as Crystal Fairy, and right away, she comes across as that particular cross of pushy and granola-crunchy that you find sometimes in the sort of urban proto-hippie that she represents.  As Jamie talks to her about his planned mescaline adventure, he somehow goes from talking about it to inviting her along to giving her his phone number, all just chatter fueled by the cocaine he's doing.  The next morning when he and Champa are actually getting on the road and she calls to say she's on a bus and will meet them, Jamie immediately regrets opening his mouth.  Champa's got his two brothers along on the trip, and Jamie's fine with both Lel (Jose Miguel Silva) and Pilo (Agustin Silva), but almost as soon as he hears Crystal Fairy's voice on the phone, he's on edge, nervous about all of her talk of energy and karma and magical pebbles and the end of the world.  She's the kind of girl who is willing to walk around naked in front of a room full of people she just met because she doesn't have any hang-ups, while Jamie is the kind of person who has no idea where to look when she does that, immediately ready to crawl out of his own skin.

There is such an authentic sense of voice to the film, written and directed by Sebastian Silva, that it's hard to really criticize it in any specific way.  It's pretty close to a purely experiential movie.  We just spend a few days with Jamie as he finally gets to have this experience he's been hoping for, and what I think the film does so well is it really lays bare the drive that underlines this sort of a holiday, this need to push yourself chemically.  At this point, it's a cliche to start talking about this modern urge to connect to a shamanic tradition, and "Crystal Fairy" is smart enough to both acknowledge how much of a cliche Jamie is but also acknowledge how for many people, these are genuine personal turning points, important parts of their understanding of themselves.  It is the empathetic way Silva portrays everybody in the film that makes it special and that keeps it from being either a joke or an attack on this sort of lifestyle.  It's not just the taking of the mescaline that the film gets right, it's everything leading up to it.  All the conversations, all the planning, the trying to acquire it, the nerves that kick in as a powerful hallucinogen gets hold of you... it's all included in the film, and in a way that never overplays any element.

All three of the guys with Jaime are played by the real brothers of the film's writer/director, and they have a great easy chemistry onscreen, with Champa really standing out as a beacon of decency and patience.  Gaby Hoffman, best known for the work she did as a child actor, gives a completely lived-in performance here as Crystal Fairy, and she's so good that it would be easy to just believe that this is who she's become as an adult, that she's not acting at all.  She and Cera both do subtle work that is funny at times, touching in places, and ultimately seems to be very studied, very wise.  I was far more affected by the film than I expected to be, and I think it carries a sort of a stealth punch.

I would imagine that for some audiences, this is still basically just going to feel like you're watching people take a drug with no insight as to how it feels, but I think there is something very special in the way Silva's instilled a sense of genuine insight into this rite of passage that is significant to many people.  "Crystal Fairy" is never going to be the big commercial break-out hit of a festival like Sundance, but I feel like this is the exact kind of film I love to see at a festival.  Something small, something sincere, something that feels like a film only this filmmaker could have or would have made.  In the long history of movies about drugs and drug culture, there are few films that have ever done such a potent and poignant job of capturing both the chemical crescendos and the emotional ebb and flow.  I can't wait to see the other film Silva has here this year with Cera also starring, and I feel like this was a great way to kick off the fest.

A respected critic and commentator for fifteen years, Drew McWeeny helped create the online film community as "Moriarty" at Ain't It Cool News, and now proudly leads two budding Film Nerds in their ongoing movie education.