Women on the verge of a nervous breakdown have been a cinematic mainstay since the birth of the medium, fuelled by everything from jealousy and claustrophobia to demonic possession and cephalopodan copulation. In Sebastian Silva’s Chilean-US co-production, Magic Magic, Juno Temple’s fragile heroine becomes increasingly unhinged thanks to a potent imbalance of jet lag, insomnia, prescription medication and an overbearingly obnoxious Michael Cera.
Soon after arriving in Santiago, fresh-faced tourist Alicia (Temple) is abandoned by her cousin Sara (Emily Browning) and left to take a road trip into the countryside with Sara’s disinterested Chilean friends, Barbara and Augustin, and Cera’s lecherous expat, Brink. While Sara is evasive about her reasons, she promises to catch up in a day or two, but Alicia immediately feels abandoned and helpless, a state-of-mind perpetuated by language barriers, unpredictable behaviour from her companions and the growing disorientation triggered by long-haul travel.
Silva uses a barrage of visual ticks and aural peccadilloes to increase the audience’s sense of unease and discomfort. Rather than making us empathise with Alicia’s compounding discombobulation, instead it accentuates our frustration with the film, as it quickly grows repetitive and illogical. Alicia is far from a sympathetic heroine, while her companions range from the bafflingly aloof to the teeth-grindingly obnoxious.
Magic Magic is an incredibly unsettling experience, and as Alicia’s list of issues and ailments lengthens, Silva continues to flirt with interesting themes: namely our preconceptions about modern vs. traditional medicines, coupled with the characters’ fondness for recreational drug use and over-medication. Even when Sara’s reasons for going AWOL are eventually revealed, it is exposed as another quick-fix solution to a biological problem.
Unlike similar Chilean-US co-productions from Eli Roth and Nicolas Lopez, which eschew character development for amorality and cheap gore, Silva here aspires for something more subtle and cerebral. Michael Cera, who has never shied away from lampooning his unthreatening screen persona, is credited as a producer and gifts himself the film’s most outright unlikable character. Brink is an American student who has spent too long overseas, which in turn has allowed an unchecked arrogance to overwhelm him that borders on the eccentric. Brink is under the assumption that Alicia’s innocent schoolgirl abroad will prove easy prey, but her insomnia-fuelled paranoia makes Alicia overly defensive to the point of violence, and Brink becomes both agitator and victim.
Inevitably, the star of the show is Juno Temple, who does a fantastic job walking the fine line between being sympathetic and incredibly frustrating, in a way that will bring out the despairing parent in the most patient of viewers. Constantly in a state of sleep-deprived agitation, Alicia becomes increasingly unsure about what around her is real and what is hallucination, dream or even a supernatural force. Whether we ultimately side with her or not will divide audiences, but Silva has certainly created one of the most delicately unnerving and disorientating psychological dramas to emerge in some time.
This review first appeared in Vérité Film Magazine January 2014