'Magic Magic' Review: Michael Cera Pushes Juno Temple Into Madness [Sundance 2013]

Magic Magic is the second of two Sundance 2013 films from writer/director Sebastián Silva and star Michael Cera. This is the one that features Cera performing much of his dialogue — quite credibly, I believe — in Spanish. But Cera isn't actually the lead here. That role belongs to Juno Temple, who very impressivly plays a young woman who goes completely out of her mind while visiting a cousin in Chile.

Programmed as part of the Midnight series at Sundance, there's the implication that Silva's film is a horror picture. And it is, to a certain extent, but it's of the sort seen in Roman Polanski movies such as Repulsion and The Tenant. As with Stoker, this is a horror film where the monsters are simply people; here, they're too selfish and short-sighted to see what damage they're doing.

In its best moments, Magic Magic has far more power to unnerve than most horror. The disintegration of one girl's psyche is rendered in such familiar, insistent terms that you might feel your own sanity crack slightly while the film runs.

Alicia (Temple) has flown to Chile to spend some time with her cousin Sarah (Emily Browning). To Alicia's consternation, Sarah has agreed to take part in a rural retreat with friends. She drags Alicia along, but then has to bail on the trip to stay in Santiago for a couple extra days. And so Alicia hits the road with people she barely knows: pretty but dopey Agustín (Agustín Silva), confrontational Barbara (Catalina Sandino Moreno) and the willowy, closeted Brink (Cera).

The trip goes poorly very fast, with Alicia questioning Sarah's friends and looking increasingly aghast at their interactions. Silva builds a scenario where Alicia's grip on sanity quickly begins to loosen through a series of relatively mundane occurrences. Dismissive comments are stacked on a disconcerting encounter with abandoned puppies, then stacked on racist dismissal from the locals — the last probably a very unfamiliar sensation for the girl.

Add to those minor elements some very strange sexual energy directed at her from Cera's character, and it isn't long before Alicia is hallucinating and hearing phantom conversations. It's a compelling vision of madness as something might not be so far away from any of us. Alone, any one of the many minor conflicts in Magic Magic might be only an annoyance. Combined with Alicia's sense of isolation, and the persistent piling-on of provocation, she cracks.

Cera plays a real creep, making his Magic Magic role a matched pair with Crystal Fairy. (My review of Crystal Fairy is here.) Brink's unpleasant nature is sourced from a different well than his character in that companion film, however, and is something that earns him real sympathy. Brink can't admit his sexuality, and tries to be one of the guys, with terrible results. To be clear, there is nothing creepy in his apparent sexuality, but the way he deals with it creates problems. Cera is quite good in the role, and these two films mark a promising break from his usual tone.

From the first minutes of the film, Silva depicts the steady chipping away of Alicia's sanity, and her dedicated performance puts a good chunk of the movie on par with some of the most effective screen thrillers depicting madness. But Magic Magic hits a plateau, and meanders in circles there for some time. There may be something intentional in that pattern; Silva clearly wants to create an uncomfortable experience, and watching someone go around and around inside their own head fits the bill. That doesn't make it a great thing to watch, however.

There is a weird, almost defiantly off-kilter final sequence that pushes Alicia so deep into the alienating culture that she is irrevocably affected. It's a recovery of sorts for the film, if not for her. The tone of the conclusion also pairs well with Crystal Fairy. Taking the films as a duo, we can see that Silva has something specific in mind with respect to how our behavior deeply affects those around us. Magic Magic is the more easily digestible of the two, but Temple's performance pushes it deep enough into the realm of the strange that it can hardly be called conventional.

/Film score: 7 out of 10