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Friends Without Benefits

Magic Magic (2013)

Andrés Gachón/2013 Sundance Film Festival

Sebastián Silva's "Magic Magic" starts off as it means to go on, in a very affected state of agitation. The camera hovers nervously around characters at waist height or below, apparently unable to look them in the eye; a brusque title card flashes on screen for a nanosecond before the camera returns to bothering someone's Skechers. Notionally a horror film, "Magic Magic" lays on the visual alienation tactics in large dollops, nearly turning into something potentially more interesting: a story built of nothing but constant fret and friction between a group of acquaintances (clearly not friends) on a Chilean road trip, where the internal stresses reach such a pitch that even the strongest of them shows signs of climbing the walls. By that point the weakest has already gone round the bend.

The luckless nutter is Alicia (Juno Temple), on vacation with friend Sarah (Emily Browning) in Chile when Sarah is called away for reasons initially unclear. Stuck on an isolated island with friends of friends, among them Brink (Michael Cera) and Barbara (Catalina Sandino Moreno), Alicia succumbs to doubts, night terrors, symbolic visions and various flavors of mental breakdown. Officially the film declines to clarify why, or how much of this is down to Alicia's innate fragility and how much is pure bullying by some horrible people; but sexual panic is clearly the heart of the matter. Offhand conversation implies that Sarah has left for an abortion, putting her on a different rung of the sexual ladder compared to Alicia, who has a childish freak out at the sight of the bulge she produces in Frink's sportswear. Later, while not of sound mind, Alicia returns the favor and freaks out all over again in the morning. All this after Mr. Silva has attempted to wring maximum satanic majesty out of Cab Calloway's "Minnie the Moocher," a song with its eyeline directed well below the belt.

Photographed partly by Christopher Doyle (and while we're at it produced by Christine Vachon and Mike White), the film's level of abrasive craft and visual unease is slightly at odds with the plot, which spins in a contained circle so that characters can repeatedly succumb to the screaming abdabs and whale on each other. But Mr. Silva has some fun with signs and sigils, blurring reality in effective low-budget style, and Ms. Temple's nervous air has never been put to better use; she spends the whole film acting like a skittish foal scanning for routes of escape, though none arrives. No escape for her, and no escape from Mr. Cera, pushing every negative aspect of his screen persona up to 11, to the point where calm and rational observers would call down an ancient Chilean curse on his head without hesitation.


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