When interviewing Chilean director Sebastian Silva at Sundance(look for that soon), he made it very clear that there is an emotional and atmospheric connection between his two festival entries, Crystal Fairy(review here) and Magic Magic. Both on the surface are very different films. One is a fairly introspective road trip movie, while the other is of the psycho-horror variety. What they do share, besides Michael Cera playing a creepy jerk in both, is Silva's explorations of personal identity and how the actions of others can damage it.
Silva's ambitions aside, Magic Magic doesn't have quite as clear a focus as Crystal Fairy, and what starts off as an intriguing look at one person's descent into madness eventually hits a wall. Indie darling Juno Temple plays Alicia, an American who flies into Chile to spend time with her best friend, Sarah(Emily Browning), and becomes an ill-fitting tag along in a group that includes Sarah's boyfriend Agustin(played by Silva's brother Agustin) and his bitchy sister Barbara(Catalino Moreno). And then there's Brink(Cera), an American whose social awkwardness manifests in increasingly ugly ways.
Right from the beginning, Alicia is nothing but a wet blanket, and the group instantly takes a disliking to her. It only gets worse when Sarah has to leave for a mysterious errand, stranding Alicia with a bunch of people she hardly knows. Her mistrust and clumsiness increase her isolation, and Silva captures her growing loneliness with a dark and oppressive mood throughout. In a disturbing and prophetic encounter, the group "adopts" a lost and sickly puppy, before abandoning it at the side of the road for some peace and quiet.
Initially, it's unclear whether Alicia's losing her grip on reality or if she's just a massively frigid tool. Occurrances which seem trivial have an abnormally blunt impact on her psyche. An encounter with a horny dog sends her into an emotional tailspin, which is only made worse by Brink's coarse sexual advances. He comes off like an adolescent trying too hard to impress a girl for the first time, or trying too hard to convince himself of his own masculinity. Either way, his efforts don't earn him much but a violent physical encounter that only drives Alicia totally over the edge and into full blown psychosis.
Perhaps more than any other at Sundance this year, it's Cera who shows a broader, edgier range than we've ever seen from him before. His performance here is less central than in Crystal Fairy, but it's certainly more nuanced. Temple does a terrific job capturing Alicia's deterioration believably, and when the film really clicks it's mostly due to her. There are vague inconsistencies throughout that speak to Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, which only increase as Alicia's madness builds until it seems the entire village is wrapped up in the ordeal.
The conclusion, which involves all sorts of tribal weirdness too strange to describe (goat guts are involved), saves what up until then is a mostly meandering effort. Silva takes us by the hand and drags us into the madness as well, and it's an experience that is wholly uncomfortable. Despite creating a sufficiently gloomy atmosphere, for too long Silva keeps us at arm's length, so that Magic Magic is never quite as spooky as it could have been.