Writer/director Sebastián Silva already “Wow’ed” me this year with his independent road-trip “comedy” Crystal Fairy, so I happily jumped at the chance to tackle his other summer release, Magic Magic. Also taking place in Chile, this story of a vacationing American is a much darker, sinister, and psychologically abusive tale, with Michael Cera returning to play an awkwardly terrifying exchange student named Brink. Silva trades laughs for tension this time around, shooting for his version of a grounded horror film, which is apparent through his indistinguishably independent delivery yet again. I absolutely loved his psychedelic take on the comedy genre, but how did his first foray into “horror” go? As quirkily as you would have imagined.
Alicia (Juno Temple) is a weary American tourist visiting her cousin Sarah (Emily Browning) while she’s studying in Chile, marking her first time outside the United States. After arriving, she meets Sarah’s boyfriend Agustín (Agustín Silva), Barbara (Catalina Sandino Moreno), and the oddly extravagant Brink (Michael Cera). After some short introductions, Alicia finds out they’re about to travel 12 hours to a little island off the coast of Chile, where they’ll have a quiet vacation all to themselves. But after Sarah is called back to University for a test, Alicia is left alone with her new friends, proving to be much less enjoyable than planned. Feeling trapped and secluded, Alicia enters a state of insomnia that causes her to become on edge at all times, and Brink’s aggressive advances start to scare the innocent girl. But are the horrors she is experiencing all in her head?
It’s funny, because even though Magic Magic is being billed as a horror movie here in the States, anyone can tell this is nothing but a psychological thriller with hints of suspenseful intrigue. There are no monsters, killers, baddies, or slashings – just a scared girl struggling with her surroundings and developed paranoia. Sure, that may sound terrifying, but don’t expect to actually be scared by Silva’s movie. His very grounded indie style makes even the wacky Cera seem somewhat normal and believable, while focusing on the psychosis of Alicia instead of true horror-style filmmaking. Don’t be fooled by the head-scratching genre label, as gorehounds and adrenaline horror fans might be put to sleep by this title.
But when properly analyzing Magic Magic as nothing but a dark thriller, Silva presents a mixed bag of results. While there are undeniably creepy moments, mostly provided by Cera, other stretches will leave you bored, a tad bit confused, and without much explanation. Silva essentially just picks you up and plops you at the beginning of a story that offers no backstory, making you figure motivations out as they come. He never wants to break the constant story that flows from Point A to Point B, but sometimes it’s hard to buy Alicia’s downward spiral without accompanying information. It’s easy to tell she has mental problems, it’s obvious that she’s unwell, but the minimalist storytelling method also prevalent in Crystal Fairy wasn’t able to duplicate the entertainment factor this time around, as Alicia felt force into craziness.
Michael Cera and Juno Temple are unfortunately a delight in their roles though, which makes me wish Magic Magic was able to cash in on their efforts. It’s hard to describe Brink’s personality exactly, but he reminded me of one of those kids who turns out to be a serial killer, and this is mirrored in his actions. The eerie vibe Cera puts out remains consistently unsettling, even when playing the victim himself at times, and his looks (as exemplified above) are probably the most terrifying part of Silva’s movie. Sure, it’s still the same goofy Michael Cera as always, but the way he mixes shyness with an overbearing attitude – it’s just impossible NOT to feel a chill every time goes wild.
Juno Temple on the other hand represents our protagonist, freaking out at the most mundane things, but it’s her madness that keeps viewers entranced. While some of her actions may be questionable, Temple always peaks our curiosity, and manages to show psychological trauma rather well. She’s scared, fears the worst, but somehow never full develops into a full main character though, as it becomes harder to justify her traumatic outbursts. Honestly, it’s easy to mimic our supporting character’s confusion, as we’re left equally in the dark.
By the time Magic Magic reaches its interesting yet outlandish conclusion, a mundane fate has already been sealed, and Silva’s more creative efforts are lost on us. Don’t get me wrong, Michael Cera and Juno Temple try their hardest to draw viewers in, and they do to a degree, but with such a bare bones script, the psychological terror was all but lost. Sebastián Silva certainly knows his way around character work, and has a brilliant collaborator in Cera, but where Crystal Fairy benefitted from a underdeveloped delivery, Magic Magic suffers a much more forgettable fate.
Magic Magic is a little too reliant on the spotlight performances of Juno Temple and Michael Cera, and is definitely too light on story to make for anything more than just an average film.