Magic Magic (2013)
Journey to the deepest reaches of your darkest fears.
After arriving in Chile in her first time out of the United States, Alicia (Juno Temple) is thrown almost immediately into a road trip and holiday with her cousin Sara’s (Emily Browning) friends. Sara is the only person Alicia has any connection with, and when she is called back to Santiago, Alicia is left adrift with strangers who often forget that she is monolingual and, by extension, leave her out of a multitude of conversations and decisions.
For Alicia, she is not only a reluctant tourist in a strange land but isolated within the tight-knit group of friends who seem to have already decided that she will be a possible romantic partner for Brink (Michael Cera), a young man whose juvenile antics and sense of humor are at odds with Alicia’s reticence and obvious fragility.
As the film progresses, what at first appeared to be Alicia feeling off-kilter in a new environment develops into something more extreme. She is unable to sleep and becomes increasingly estranged from the group as she desperately awaits Sara’s return. Through a cumulative process of uncomfortable events, some accidental, others deliberate, Alicia becomes increasingly unsettled in what should be an idyllic environment.
The film begins to take a turn when somewhat harmless behavior from a relatively normal group of young adults becomes skewed and potentially threatening. Jokes are no longer jokes as Alicia becomes hypersensitive to Brink’s fecklessness and weighed upon by Bárbara’s (Catalina Sandino Moreno) cold condescension. Trying to hold things in good-natured balance is Augustín (Agustín Silva), Sara’s boyfriend. Although he tries to keep the group relaxed and jocular, Alicia’s prickliness and awkwardness keep her at odds with all around her.
Sara’s arrival at the holiday house brings little comfort to Alicia, who is experiencing her third day of sleeplessness and has become increasingly unable to vocalize her experience to the rest of the group. As an audience, we seek some resolution to the dynamic between them, but writer-director Sebastián Silva deliberately holds this back from us, instead pushing the group into increasingly extreme situations.
Filmmaker Sebastián Silva depicts Alicia’s deteriorating psychological condition through, at times, canny camera effects but mostly through pushing the metaphor that the character is unsuited to her environment, which is both beautiful and dangerous. An example of this can be found in a scene wherein the group encounters two abandoned puppies, Barbára is intent that they leave them to die whilst Brink jokes about how gross one is. The group argues, and eventually, one is scooped up to be presumably rescued. As the dog whines uncontrollably in the car, Barbára decides to abandon it on the road. The audience is given the sense that the weak do not survive — something that is reiterated once Alicia becomes more unhinged.
For some, the pacing of the narrative may be rankling, but it isn’t unusual for this kind of film to use a seemingly off-tempo beat to echo the emotional state of the protagonist. There is a sense that Silva wants us to linger on specific motifs as metaphors; an example being the consistent use of dead animals and furs. Another technique he employs is displaced vision; the camera often doesn’t show what Alicia cannot see. When it moves from her point of view, it chronicles her with a kind of voyeurism that is echoed by the group, often trying to make a spectacle of Alicia despite her discomfort at being put in any sort of spotlight.
Juno Temple’s, Killer Joe (2011), performance as Alicia is complex and nuanced, consistently engaging the audience in questioning who the young woman is and what came before to cause her to be so out of synch with the other people in the group. Simultaneously attempting to be compliant with the group whilst actively feeling at odds with them, Alicia focuses the film on to the question of how an outsider can adapt to circumstances that are deliberately alienating and subtly threatening without seemingly being overtly dangerous.
Michael Cera, Juno (2007), plays an altogether convincing nebbish and annoying Brink. His desire to impress his hosts is at once pathetic and irritating. As he realizes his own powerlessness amongst the group, he becomes somewhat more sympathetic, but through his earlier antics, any sympathy for his character is limited. Other cast members aren’t really given enough space to shine, as the film is mostly concerned with allowing Alicia’s story to unfold. Emily Browning, Sleeping Beauty (2011), and Augustín Silva, Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus (2013), are both solid as Sara and Augustin but not remarkable.
Silva’s film is part puzzle, part character study. As to whether it is overall a success is dependent on whether one can effectively empathize with Alicia’s isolation. The film isn’t interested in answering why Alicia is disintegrating, but more concerned with documenting the incremental moments that lead to her eventual break. Whether or not the film works rests on the believability of Alicia’s state of mind, and at times Silva pushes too hard working with visual cues when he should have allowed more narrative explication of who Alicia is outside of her relationship to the group she is effectively stranded in.
Magic Magic certainly speaks to a specific visual tone and type of genre horror that leaves more to the imagination in terms of a slow burn discomfort as opposed to an obvious fright-fest. For those who prefer their horror to be open-ended, the film will certainly appeal, yet for others, it will frustrate because seemingly little happens. Tension is given in small increments, not in a rush of adrenaline, and because of this, those who look for catharsis in their horror may well be disappointed. However, for those who prefer cerebral discomfort to jump scares, the film will certainly deliver.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Nadine Whitney