It might seem logical for a film festival to open with one of its best entries, but in practice, opening night movies are usually middle-of-the-road fare—comfortable, unchallenging movies unlikely confuse the donors and corporate sponsors in the crowd. (Toronto, which normally starts with a forgettable Canadian film, broke significantly with tradition by opening with Looper.) Say this, at least, for Cherien Dabis’ May In The Summer (B): It perfectly encapsulated both Sundance’s virtues and its faults.
Introducing the film in Park City’s capacious Eccles Theatre, Dabis gave Sundance credit for her career, and with good reason: Her first feature, Amreeka, premiered here, as did her first short film, and May was developed through the Sundance Labs, which Robert Redford called Sundance’s primary raison d’être. May shows more confidence than Amreeka, not least in the fact that Dabis steps in front of the camera for the first time, playing a New York-based writer who goes home to Jordan to prepare for her marriage to a fellow Arab intellectual. Sisters Alia Shawkat and Nadine Malouf are waiting for her, occasioning an awkward reunion with mother Hiam Abbas, whose newly devout Christianity puts them all ill at ease. Dabis has light touch with cultural reference points, swiftly limning the sisters’ mixed feelings at returning to a home they no longer know. Malouf, seeing a carload of niqab-clad women, drops a sly dig at the country’s proliferation of “ninjas,” and later, she and Shawkat feud over whose Arabic is better. (Dabis, the imperious older sister, settles the matter: They both speak terribly.)
Although the actresses don’t resemble each other even slightly, their sisterly rapport is perfectly captured, a mixture of half-formed jokes and long-simmering resentment. But Dabis’ touch grows clumsier when she needs to push the plot forward, and her shot choices range from odd to almost incompetent. She shoots stationary conversations from directly opposite angles, so that characters leap from one side of the screen to another, and when she tries to track all three sisters in a single shot, the result is visual chaos. The Sundance Labs have birthed dozens of great films, but it doesn’t speak well for the program when a graduate comes to her second feature lacking a full set of basic tools.
Sebastían Silva’s Crystal Fairy (A-), which lost “& the Magical Cactus & 2012” somewhere between the title card and the festival catalogue, is an accidental film, put together in a rush when another project Silva and star Michael Cera were involved in temporarily fell apart. (That movie, Magic Magic, premieres later in the week.) It’s a fitting origin for a movie about characters who don’t know where they’re going, and end up better off because of it. Cera plays an idle American bent on sampling every variety of drug Chile has to offer. Quoting Aldous Huxley while opining to no one in particular about the qualities of a batch of coke, he’s insufferable from the moment we lay eyes on him, a perfect caricature of an enlightenment junkie whose utopian jargon clashes with his hostile insecurity. Cera’s Chilean friends—or rather, the three Chilean brothers who mysteriously tolerate him—call him “pollo,” perhaps a reference to his wavy, sun-damaged hair or his high-strung temperament.
Cera’s prevailing obsession is taking mescaline, which involves several days’ drive to a rural area where villagers’ backyards are full of hallucinogenic cacti. The night before the trip, he meets a woman who calls herself Crystal Fairy (Gaby Hoffman), a ratty-haired hippie who matches his bullshit with her own. Cera invites her along, and though he regrets it the next day and tries to abandon her, she comes along for the ride, which turns out to be a bumpy and often exasperating one.
Although he fancies himself the master of ceremonies, Cera is often petty and manipulative, so stuck on his idea for the perfect drug experience that he’s blind to what’s happening around him. Hoffman, by contrast, is a self-appointed psychic healer, trying to get everyone grooving on the same wavelength before they take their first swig. For anyone who’s ever embarked on such a psychedelic fool’s errand, Silva’s depiction is painfully accurate. Although it’s not his intention, the movie functions as a powerful argument for staying straight: Don’t do drugs, and you won’t have to hang out with assholes.
After the screening, Silva revealed that there was a real Crystal Fairy, a woman he took mescaline with ten years earlier and has never seen since. He’s never known how to find her, but if the film brought her out of the woodwork, it would be a fitting end to a very strange fairy tale.
Tomorrow: Backing singers, cannibals, and third-trimester abortionists.