What is illustrious Arrested Development alum Michael Cera doing on a Chilean beach, tripping on hallucinogenic cactus juice with a band of South American brothers while a blithely nekkid Gaby Hoffmann cavorts nearby? Beats me, but I’m glad he’s there. Crystal Fairy — the title refers to the name preferred by Hoffmann’s New Age-y character — tastes a little of Y tu mamá tambien, with its sandy ramble of an outing. (That in itself is a good thing.) But the flashes of absurdist humor, druggy space-time perceptions, and low-keyed empathy are the bright work of New York-based Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Silva. (Seek out his 2009 Sundance award-winner The Maid — so good.) It’s no accident that Cera’s character, a cloddish, insensitive American guy out for an exotic (and low-budget) South American Adventure, keeps referring to The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley’s account of his own drug-induced revelations that inspired generations of college-age seekers to turn on and tune in. Crystal Fairy is shot through with sharp, fleeting insights about beauty, spontaneity, and the human hunger to connect. Plus, at the old-man age of 24, Cera has honed his expressive deadpan — shading from incredulity to aggression to bewilderment and back to comedic — to even more mature advantage, and the director recognizes the extra laughs of putting such a grating gringo in among gentler Spanish-speaking locals. Hoffmann, meanwhile, wanders around in the altogether with phenomenal hippie aplomb.
Crystal Fairy is among the 12 entries in the festival’s World Dramatic Competition, one of four awards categories including U.S. Dramatic, World Documentary, and U.S. Documentary. And in recent years, under the forward-thinking direction of festival director John Cooper, Sundance has expanded the opening-night festivities to showcase one from each. I am trying hard not to draw any particular conclusions from my sense that while Crystal Fairy is loose (but not lax) and unpredictable (but to a purpose), the U.S. Dramatic opening-night film, May in the Summer, creaks along on an over-plotted grid of family conficts, ethnic touches, and slapdash photography. But…why? Why is the American entry so much squarer and filled with life lessonszzzzzz? This is the second feature from Cherien Dabis, and it feels like a step back from Amreeka, her more inspired, award-winning 2009 drama that, like May in the Summer, draws on Dabis’s own Palestinian-American background to explore cultural conflicts.
While Amreeka is set in the West Bank and suburban Chicago (Dabis grew up in Ohio and Jordan), May in the Summer take:s place in Amman, Jordan (much of it shot in the home of the director’s mother). There May (played with limited expression by Dabis) arrives from New York in anticipation of her wedding, reuniting with her mother and two younger sisters. Every woman has a conflict, both within herself and with others; every man poses a problem; every shot of Amman looks random and muddy; every beat in the script feels worked and reworked.
But hey: I will draw no conclusive festival lessons on the basis of two movies seen on the opening night of Sundance 2013. It’s very very cold and very very sunny in Park City, Utah, with a lot of snow on the ground but none falling from the thin air. On we go, happy to be here, armed with hand sanitizer, and, in this flu-epidemic edition of this venerable festival, not touching one another but hoping to be touched each time the lights go down.