I have a theory that I should probably run by an evolutionary psychologist (an actual field of study). I think we have so many people with emotional problems because our brains have not yet adapted our early fight-or-flight responses to the conditions of the modern world. This disconnect between the biological and the environmental is, in my extremely uninformed opinion, why you have people who crack on the Maury Povich show when they see balloons or something.
We can act like tough guys if we want, but we all experience irrational paranoia. Not all of us collapse like Juno Temple's Alicia in Sebastian Silver's quite extraordinary film workout 'Magic Magic.' The film opens with young Temple visiting her cousin (Emily Browning) and her cousin's friends in Chile. It's her first time out of the country, and her shyness and inexperience manifests in odd ways. (I've never seen someone shower in such a unique position before.)
After she lands (and before resting), the group hits the road for a cabin by the water. An odd phone call sends Browning back to Santiago and now she's in a car with three strangers in a place she's never been before (and the CD player is annoyingly stuck replaying "Minnie the Moocher").
Agustin seems like a nice enough chap, but Barbara is no friend, especially after Temple accidentally soaks her bag. Most noticeable is Michael Cera, hyper and astoundingly (and intentionally) annoying. He is, as we would have called him on the not-very-PC playground, a total spaz. He's loud, he can't sit still, he says whatever comes into his mind and he likes to push buttons. (If you watch really closely, you might interpret much of his behavior as an inability to come to terms with his homosexuality, but this is just one topic for post-screening conversation.)
After a slow buildup, 'Magic Magic' segues into full-blown psychological horror in a classic Roman Polanski vein. ('Repulsion'/'Rosemary's Baby'/'The Tenant' being the eternal holy trinity of entertaining "let's watch somebody go nuts" films.)
There are sequences in 'Magic Magic' that are nothing but the filmmaker messing with you. There's a cliff-jumping bit that is a master class in how to make an audience bite their fingernails til they bleed. If I ever meet Sebastian Silva, I'm gonna' give him a piece of my mind about that one.
Silva, sadist that he is, knows that true fear comes from expectation. There are zero "jump scares" in this film, but the insufferable waiting, waiting, waiting for something terrible to happen will drive you crazy. When the Chilean excrement finally does hit the fan, the film kicks into a sustained hum of true cinematic horror. It isn't so much what happens, but how it happens -- and how realistically it plays out.
When good actors are given room to just freak out about something that isn't supernatural or make believe, the effect is no joke. As a result, the final 20 minutes or so of 'Magic Magic' may very well make you sick to your stomach. At the screening I attended, there were audible moans and even an entreaty to "make it stop." Yeah, you've got to see this movie.
'Magic Magic' is one of two films Sebastian Silva and Michael Cera made and brought to this year's Sundance. 'Crystal Fairy' is terrific in its own right, and 'Magic Magic' are wholly different, but both have a vibrancy and snap to their shooting and editing. They represent some of the best work Cera's ever done. ('Scott Pilgrim' is terrific, but Cera's actual performance is just a small part in that overall piece of work.) Here's hoping they have some more projects in them.
'Magic Magic' premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.