" I’ll be monitoring your frequency "
— Zoe Saldana, Star Trek

MRQE Top Critic

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Michael Cera, the scrawny kid from Scott Pilgrim and Superbad, takes a road trip. And a mescaline trip.

Cera plays Jamie, an American traveling through Chile. He likes the local drugs pretty well, which is good, because his reason for coming is to sample the psychedelic power in the San Pedro cactus. His friend Champa (Juan Andrés Silva) — their relationship isn’t spelled out too clearly — will drive him north to the city where the San Pedros are known to grow.

Jamie and Crystal ponder their destiny
Jamie and Crystal ponder their destiny

The morning after a big party, Jamie has slept in. Champa and his brothers are waiting in the car — the first of many examples of Jamie’s thoughtlessness. Before they get very far Jamie’s phone rings. That girl he met last night, Crystal Fairy (Gaby Hoffman), is on the phone. She says she is on the bus to the next town north and she’ll meet them in the town square. Jamie did invite her to do just that, but he hoped she’d never accept. He didn’t really mean it as an invitation... another example of his thoughtlessness. Luckily, easygoing Champa is there to keep him honest.

They find Crystal being mobbed by a group of local women demanding to be paid. Some sort of touristic misunderstanding has happened, but Champa and his brothers are native speakers and they extract the gringos. The movie quickly becomes a road trip, with clueless Jamie and nagging Crystal using up most of the air in the cramped Suburban.

Those brothers are actually pretty interesting in their unobtrusive way. The opening credits proudly introduce as actors the Silva brothers (the brothers of writer/director Sebastián Silva, who plays the quietest brother, Lobo). They don’t really have much acting to do, and they fill the roles perfectly. Good-natured and content to just observe, they sit in the back seat and ride along. Since they don’t speak much English, and since Jamie and Crystal are such dominating yakkers, they don’t require great actors to portray them. They form a sort of quiet Greek Chorus, there to heighten the volume and brashness of the American tourists.

The cactus high that forms the film’s climax was an opportunity for a young filmmaker to show his purely creative visual chops. Silva, probably wisely, underplays the sense of being high. He brings the audience into the trip with some mismatched audio, while Jamie talks about his voice sounding weird. Silva uses slow-motion and the Chilean desert to good effect. But he doesn’t go crazy, for better or worse, with expressionistic footage of the trip. Whether through necessity or aesthetic choice, much of the film has a washed-out look, as though the Chilean sun were a powerful oven. Only at the end, when Crystal is alone, do we get a darker, richer palette.

The endings of road-trip movies are not often memorable. Silva, I think, writes as good an ending as you can expect. There is a natural low following the psychedelic high, and Silva uses that to bring the emotional state of the audience back to earth. There is a final epiphany for Jamie having to do with Crystal. For her part, Crystal has an emotional growth spurt. And as for the brothers, they’re probably just happy to have calmer quieter Americans for the trip home. I almost thought that the sudden growth at the end of the film felt a little contrived — a little “written.” But I think it was the right choice.

If you had to make a movie on a budget, with just a few actors (and your brothers), this is a pretty good one to make. Silva’s script is probably the strongest asset. Rather than sticking to a formula, he embraces the humanity of his characters — flawed and annoying as they may be — and follows them down the road.