Magic Magic (2013) Film Review: Madness and Hallucinations in the Chilean Backwaters

Alicia (Juno Temple) finds madness in the Chilean backwaters in Sebastian Silva’s troubling psychological horror Magic Magic.


Magic Magic is the second collaboration between Michael Cera and Chilean director Sebastian Silva. The first was the hallucinogenic road trip Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus (2013), a touching movie, reminiscent of transnational classics like The Motorcycle Diaries (Walter Salles, 2004), and Y Tu Mama Tambien (Alfonso Cuaron, 2001).

Michael Cera is cast out of type in both of Silva’s films, and instead of the sweet, and often bumbling character audiences are accustomed too, Cera’s performance takes a distinctly unpleasant turn. He isn’t likable, or relatable, instead he is off putting and overtly creepy.

Magic Magic isn’t an easy film to define, and unfortunately like Cera’s character, it’s not particularly likable either. The story follows Alicia (Juno Temple) who joins her cousin Sarah (Emily Browning) in Chile. She hangs out with Sarah’s friends and it becomes apparent that as a group they are passive aggressive, and often times manipulative too.

The Story

Cera plays Brink, a young American expat and the son of a diplomat, who has spent the last two and a half years in South America. He’s the joker of the group but his attempts at humour, and his abject loneliness, target Alicia – she’s doesn’t find him funny, and is clearly threatened by his excitable nature. Brother and sister Agustin and Barbara (Agustin Silva, Catalina Sandino Moreno) join the trio and collectively they head out towards a remote island in rural Chile.

Before they set off however Sarah gets a phone call, which makes her stay behind. She promises to join Alicia within a few days. Alicia agrees unhappily to travel with Sarah’s friends and wait for her to catch up. This is the first point in the film that a sense of unease and doom infects the narrative and Alicia clearly doesn’t fit in. She is terrified of Brink, Barbara is needlessly unpleasant towards her, and her only potential ally seems to be the quiet spoken Agustin.

On the journey the group rescue a puppy left by the side of the road only to abandon it further along when they can’t put up with its plaintive cries any longer. This is something that unsettles Alicia, and coupled with picking the wrong music for the journey, ensures that she feels excluded from the group.

Madness, Hallucinations, and Hypnosis

It’s not easy to discuss Magic Magic without delving into plot lines and story arcs. What transpires however is an uneasily plotted film that explores ideas of madness, of hallucinations, and amateur attempts at hypnosis. Alicia is clearly unhinged, she struggles to sleep, and her experiences with Brink push her further over the edge. Her one link to her past life, and in her view safety, is Sarah who takes far longer to join the group than they initially thought.

During that time Alicia becomes ever more troubled and her experiences are difficult to understand, or explain away. There’s a distinct sense of magical realism to the proceedings but even within that context the narrative doesn’t make much sense. There is something compelling in the performances however and Juno Temple does a great job with Alicia.

Michael Cera’s Brink is more of a peripheral character but his influence is felt on almost every scene. It seems like he is pushing Alicia’s buttons but even that explanation doesn’t account for her increasingly erratic behaviour. The story becomes ever more unpleasant, and Magic Magic quickly veers towards a cabin in the woods horror piece, which wouldn’t be a problem if that was an accurate description of the narrative and its events.

Cult Cinema

Fairy tale influences in Magic Magic's colours.
Fairy tale influences in Magic Magic’s colours.

Silva’s film is an intriguing experience, and it’s certainly one that will generate a cult following. The imagery and the setting provide ample scope to contrast the overwhelming baseness of nature with Alicia’s inability to find peace or sanity in a beautiful location. The cinematography greatly adds to the experience and the Chilean backwaters are lovingly captured by experienced DOP Christopher Doyle.

There’s a perfect background to layer a compelling and complex story on top of but Silva’s original screenplay is lacking in terms of development. The film relies on tropes that audiences are immediately familiar with, the most overt one being the rural location, and the cabin in the woods. But the props used aren’t quite as formulaic and the sheep imagery dotted throughout the film adds a fitting sense of prolepsis once Magic Magic reaches its unsettling denouement.

For most audience members Magic Magic will read like a traditional horror film, one that focuses on a female lead, and her sexuality, but Silva’s film is more about the effects of a mental breakdown, and a backwards gazing culture unable to provide the help or understanding needed. It’s perhaps only a horror film because it shows just how terrifying and lonely a struggle with mental health can be.

Not Just a Genre Piece

Throughout the film Alicia is given sleeping pill after sleeping pill in order to help her calm down. This treatment form, reliant on taking drugs, is reflective of the approach that Western doctors adopt and it seems just as backwards and ill-informed as the rural Chilean’s and their perspectives. For Alicia her understanding of her own experiences are compromised and her ability to understand her self, and her surroundings is impossible too.

The plot of Magic Magic, with its uneasy boundaries and explanations, reflects Alicia’s experiences. The rural setting serves to ostracize her and magnify her psychological problems. Perhaps the biggest surprise of Silva’s film is Juno Temple’s performance. It’s one that will shape her career and coupled with her appearance in Horns (Alexandre Aja, 2013), shows that she is an actor willing to take chances with the roles she accepts.

Sebastian Silva is a promising director and his two films released in 2013 show exactly why. If Crystal Fairy is Michael Cera’s opportunity to show his potential, then Magic Magic is Juno Temple’s. Silva’s work is diverse, creative, and at times deeply unsettling and the performances he gets from the actors he works with shows that he himself is inspirational too.

Juno Temple and Michael Cera in Magic Magic.

Magic Magic is an often nasty piece of cinema that delves into the psychological problems of its troubled lead, and it showcases the emerging talent of director Sebastian Silva.

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