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Sunday, January 25, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 25.0° F  Mostly Cloudy and Breezy
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Travel companions clash while procuring a psychedelic cactus in Crystal Fairy
Prickly pair
Cheech and Chong meet French New Wave.
Cheech and Chong meet French New Wave.

The backpacker travel scene is amazing. All around the world, there are locales so stunning, so breathtaking, that young people will trek thousands of miles for the purpose of visiting them and — taking drugs. Couldn't they just take the drugs at home and save the money?

That's the milieu of Crystal Fairy, a marvelous film by Chilean writer and director Sebastián Silva. This gritty dark comedy centers on Jamie (Michael Cera), an obnoxious, highly opinionated young American. He has journeyed to Chile so he can ingest a brew made from a fabled psychedelic cactus. He's the kind of druggie who rationalizes his habit by prattling on about Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception. When he is actually on psychedelic drugs, however, he's less about opening the doors of perception, more about saying "whoa" at the sight of a pelican.

He's also the kind of druggie who likes to be in control. He has specific ideas about how this drug trip ought to play out. He and his Chilean pals are supposed to procure the cactus, then drive to the beach. The Chileans are played by Silva's brothers Juan Andrés, José Miguel and Lel Agustín Silva. They are wonderful in their roles, deadpan and sly.

What Jamie doesn't anticipate is that they will be traveling with Crystal Fairy (Gaby Hoffmann), another young American. She joins Jamie's group because, in a drug-fueled state at a party, he invites her. He doesn't remember doing that. She subscribes to New Age notions about healing stones and energy work. He patronizes her and makes cruel remarks about her body.

The movie plays out as a battle of wills between Jamie and Crystal Fairy, who also has ideas about psychedelic drug trips. These include a preliminary bull session in which the friends are supposed to express their deepest fears. This actually seems like a sensible idea, but Jamie wants no part of it. The Chileans play along, though it's not clear whether they're genuinely interested or if they're just humoring Crystal Fairy.

These are terrific, tense performances by Cera and Hoffmann. Their exasperation will be familiar to anyone who's ever squabbled with a traveling companion. Sebastián Silva sets their characters in a story that's rather like a Cheech and Chong picaresque as directed by French New Wave legend Eric Rohmer. There are funny stoner-comedy elements, but there also are ambiguities and well-observed character moments, as well as mournful revelations.

I'm especially inspired by a particular musical cue. When the cactus drug first starts kicking in, Silva films the cast romping in the surf as Henry Mancini's "Two for the Road" plays on the soundtrack. The 1960s easy-listening music is an unexpected choice in this setting. It shouldn't work. It does, perfectly.

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