The promotional material for Magic Magic seems intent on portraying it as a horror film, in particular the slightly lazy trailer, but it isn’t. Chilean director Sebastián Silva’s second film in quick succession, after Crystal Fairy (also featuring Michael Cera), is actually a taut psychological thriller about a girl out of her comfort zone.
That girl is Alicia (Juno Temple), who ventures out of the US for the first time to join her cousin Sarah on holiday in Chile. After briefly introducing Alicia to her friends, including an oddball manchild called Brink (Cera), Sarah is unexpectedly called away for school, leaving Alicia in a strange country with a group of strangers. We soon come to understand that she is a jittery, possibly psychologically damaged person at the best of times, even without the added pressures of dealing with unfamiliar situations.
Juno Temple is excellent in the central role, and gives a performance of real depth and heart. She portrays her character’s growing insomnia and ever-increasing list of eccentricities convincingly – a feat aided by Silva’s script, which is grounded and consistent (barring the ending – more on that later) in a way that most thrillers fail to achieve. The sense that the world is strange, but that it may be strange because of us, as opposed to intrinsically, is an idea that runs through the film, and Silva finds interesting ways to portray the disparity between reality and Alicia’s increasingly nerve-wracked perception of it – often involving animals.
Credit, too, to the supporting cast, who fall just on the right side of ‘weird’ when they need to, but never topple over into psycho-thriller clichés or shake too vigorously the foundations of credulity that Silva establishes. After all, any threat perceived in any of them may well be down to Alicia’s unstable condition. The exception to that rule perhaps comes in the form of Brink, who Michael Cera plays in a kind of darkly discombobulated subversion of the roles he’s well known (and typecast) for. Here, bi-lingual and thoroughly strange, he comes across as an antagonistic but not singularly ‘bad’ character. The fact that Alicia finds him so hard to read, and that he appears to have connection troubles of his own, creates a believable chasm between them. In that chasm there is dark humour, and Cera isn’t completely ‘playing against type’, but this is an interesting step away from his comfort zone.
Silva and his cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Glenn Kaplan shoot the Chilean countryside beautifully, creating a wholly convincing but understated backdrop for Alicia’s unfolding sanity, while the score (both original and licensed) from Daniel Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, combined with detailed sound effects work, compliments goings on nicely.
One of the film’s few major missteps is the ending, which feels like a bit of a cop out: an attempt to inject either ambiguity or finality (depending on how one reads it) into a screenplay that wasn’t sure where to go. It does at least conclude with an effective shot on a boat, but the ending strains the affection the film has been building up to that point, and sadly diminishes the effect of the whole thing.
But that can be forgiven because the performances and setup are strong. I n a world of cheap crash-bang jump scares and recycled found footage genre flicks, it’s refreshing to see something with a dramatic heart beating beneath its discomfiting exterior.