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Thursday night is the official beginning of Sundance, with four films premiering for both public audiences and, in a much smaller and less glamorous setting, the press. The first I caught was Who Is Dayani Cristal?, a documentary about illegal migrants who die trying to cross the U.S. border, featuring substantial re-enactment scenes starring Gael Garcia Bernal, who also co-directed. It's a noble effort but not necessarily a successful one, and to be honest the much more interesting movie of the night was the next one, Sebastian Silva's Crystal Fairy.

My roommate and Operation Kino co-host Matt Patches caught that second one with me, and at the end of the night we caught up to record a video about that film, Crystal Fairy, along with Who Is Dayani Cristal? and the premiere film he caught, May in the Summer (I've since seen it, and I like it much more than he did-- more to come on that later). See our reactions to all three films below, and read on for more on Crystal Fairy.

Crystal Fairy-- real name unknown-- is first seen jumping into the middle of a dance circle, a big mess of frizzy brown hair and too many bangles, moving way too slowly for the music that's playing. She's the kind of girl who's constantly offering to massage your aura, or insisting that everyone do a meditation before dinner, or lecturing you about the sugar in your food, or walking about stridently naked. We've all known this kind of girl, and as played in Crystal Fairy & The Magic Cactus And 2012 by the former child actress Gaby Hoffman, she becomes nuanced and fascinating-- but only under the harsh glare of a fellow American who can't stand the sight of her.

Michael Cera's character Jamie was probably the selling point for most of the press who crowded into last night's screening. Michael Cera, making a movie in Chile about a group of people trying to do drugs-- wait, what? But even though Jamie is the main character, he's the complete antithesis to the spirit of the movie, a guy who we first meet out of his mind on cocaine, and who spends most of the rest of the movie trying to convince everyone to go along with his plans-- and getting in the way of what everyone actually wants to do. Jamie invites Crystal Fairy to join him on a road trip up north on a drugged-out impulse, and when she actually shows up, his first instinct is to ditch her immediately. But she sticks around, of course, and her presence adds a delicious friction to this Y Tu Mama Tambien-style road trip-- the only girl in a group of guys, a girl with defiantly unshaven armpits and wild eyebrows, and a girl who one member of the group vocally can't stand.

Along for the ride are a trio of Chilean brothers (director Sebastian Silva's real-life siblings Agustin, Jose Miguel and Juan Andres) who are too nice to say anything mean to Crystal Fairy, and who quickly realize that Jamie is the actual obnoxious one. The energy of the film's first half, as the group is on their search for the San Pedro cactus that they will cook and turn into mescaline, slides into the more muted but intricate second half, as the group trips out on the beach and comes to more than a few realizations about themselves. Yes, that's a cliche about any story featuring strangers in a strange land and drugs, but the conflict between Jamie and Crystal Fairy has been so well-drawn to that point that it's fascinating to see them change. The Silva brothers are much more static characters, but they make for an endearing Greek chorus, each of them getting priceless reaction shots at the next ridiculous things one of these Americans does.

I responded strongly to the way the film explores a character like Crystal Fairy, a woman very deliberately rejecting cultural expectations of how women are supposed to be-- and who has very good reasons to do so. A final monologue puts a little too neat of a button on her character, but Hoffman's fearless and naturalistic performance sells the hell out of it, and it adds to the film's warmhearted but incisive treatment of its two main characters, both of whom come in for critique but who are ultimately embraced as well. Crystal Fairy is a bit of a ramble and maybe 15 minutes too long, but its spin on the familiar story of Americans in a strange land is smart and constantly surprising. No distribution information about this one yet, but that same promise of "the Michael Cera doing drugs in Chile movie" ought to get it in front of at least a few audiences before too long.

Click here to read all of my Sundance coverage so far, and follow me on Twitter for the most up-to-the-minute updates.
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