Juno Temple stars as an American student visiting Chile and losing her grip on reality as a result of insomnia.
The highly-strung Alicia (Temple) arrives in Santiago to stay with her cousin Sara (Emily Browning), who is spending a year at university there. No sooner has she arrived than she’s bundled into a car with Sara’s boyfriend Agustin (Agustin Silva), his studious sister Barbara (Catalina Sandino Moreno), and their obnoxious American friend Brink (Michael Cera) for a long road-trip to an island off the Chilean coast where Agustin’s family has a holiday home. And Sara stays behind, pleading an unexpected college exam that she has to take. Alicia’s confusion, linguistic incompetence, clumsiness and insomnia see her rub everyone up the wrong way. Feeling persecuted and ever more insomniac Alicia starts to hallucinate phone conversations with Sara, imagine disapproving stares from Barbara, and even become morbidly afraid of an amorous dog. When Sara finally arrives she finds Alicia nearly unspooling completely.
Magic Magic isn’t really a horror film, but it does have elements of ‘social horror’ as Stephen King dubbed it. Early on Barbara deviously baits Alicia into patronising the marginalised of Chile, and from that moment we suspect Barbara, but are also terrified on Alicia’s behalf that she’s going to be victimised by these people as a sacrificial ugly American paying for the sins of the CIA. That things don’t work out quite so predictably is to the good. Instead Alicia’s insomnia sees her start to lose her grip on reality, and, on a more mundane and relatable level, make poor choices that compound her existing difficulties. The irony of course is that this island is beautifully photographed by Christopher Doyle and Glenn Kaplan as a paradise, but Alicia can only see its geographic isolation and its related threatening strangeness.
Temple is less over-exposed than in Killer Joe, but reprises some elements of that naïf performance. Michael Cera, however, reprises elements of his This is the End cameo to startling effect. It turns out that Cera can be skin-crawlingly creepy and his cruel capricious sexually predatory Brink is a very memorable villain that renders George Michael Bluth a distant memory. However, despite the committed performances and the patient descent into insomniac madness writer/director Sebastian Silva doesn’t really seem to know where all this is headed. A climatic sequence seems to fulfil many of the social horror elements hinted at earlier, but then peters out into an ending that may have been intended as enigmatic but just feels inconsequential. Cera, the executive producer, obviously sniffed a good opportunity to shake up his screen persona, but what is the film’s wider purpose?
Magic Magic is eminently watchable; especially if you’ve ever been thrown among strangers and had to awkwardly sink or swim socially, or lain awake for hour after frustrated hour; but it’s not essential viewing.