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Finally, a Classic Portrayal of the Ugly American Backpacker

Michael Cera gets high, and highly annoying, in 'Crystal Fairy'

Critics, including me, have been teasing the arrival of Michael Cera's manhood—or his man-childhood, anyway—for so many years now that you’d be forgiven for thinking the actor was still a teenager, and a virgin to boot. It began with 2009’s Youth in Revolt, when Cera simultaneously played Nick Twisp, a shy virgin who meets the girl of his dreams, and Twisp’s suave, imaginary alter-ego Françoise, giving hope that “some brave studio might one day let this guy portray an actual adult.” Cera again played a teenager who meets the girl of his dreams in 2010’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, but his character split the difference between Twisp and Françoise—and thus, “for the first time suggests a credible adult version of Michael Cera.” To paraphrase a former teen-pop star, Cera was not a boy, not yet a man.

Now, after a period of quiet, he is back with two films—and the media is back to its fixation on whether his testicles have finally dropped. Playing himself in the apocalyptic horror-comedy This Is The End, Cera is the first to be killed off when he’s impaled by a lightpole; and in Crystal Fairy, he plays a gauche drug tourist in Chile. The latter prompted the OC Weekly to declare, “Michael Cera is growing up.” And earlier this month, in what I hope is both the zenith and the death of this tic, The New York Times’ David Carr was on it: “A man-child who grew up before our eyes, Mr. Cera is now 25 and in that place where many actors who were irresistible when they were young become invisible as they reach adulthood. It hasn’t gone that way for him. Instead, he is adding significant wrinkles to how people see him.”

Note that fact: Cera is 25 years old. His flushed, fleshy cheeks may not be capable of growing a full beard, but he is, by any measure except perhaps the media’s, an adult. He even looks like a 25-year-old, and that happens to be a ripe age for restless young men—again, including me—to embark on a lengthy backpacking trip in a developing country, and to spend most of that time drinking and taking drugs, as his character Jamie in Crystal Fairy does.

The subgenre of films about American backpackers is thin and littered with failure, the narratives usually falling into one of two microgenres: backpackers in danger (being imprisoned for drug smuggling in Brokedown Palace, for instance, or being kidnapped in the Taken and Hostel franchises) and backpackers in search of ... something (love in the Before films, utopia in The Beach). But in most of them you’ll find, either overtly or implicitly, one of the most grating myths in modern America: that travel engenders self-discovery. The very notion of "finding" yourself is comically absurd. You are you; there is not another version you out there in the world, just waiting to be found. And searching for this new you while, say, roaming the Amazon is liable only to make you feel more lost.

It took a foreigner, Chilean writer-director Sebastián Silva, to mock that myth and show the gringo backpacker for what he is: a privileged, sun-chasing cheapskate in search of not enlightenment, but the next thrill (whether that be drugs or mountain biking down the most dangerous road in Bolivia).1 For Cera’s Jamie, it’s the former. In Crystal Fairy’s opening scene, he’s high on coke at a house party and, in his overexcitement, invites a young American woman (Gaby Hoffmann) to join him and his three Chilean buddies on a road trip the next day. Their plan is to locate, and then ingest, the hallucinogenic San Pedro cactus.

Several hours and two transvestite hookers later, he’s on the road, accompanied by his Chilean friends and a massive coke hangover. After awhile, he gets a call. It’s her: Crystal Fairy. She is waiting, as planned, in the town in which the group planned to search for San Pedro. Jamie does not remember inviting her, but his friends assure him that he did, and that he cannot possibly ignore her now that she has taken a bus this far. Violins shriek on the soundtrack. This is Jamie’s worst nightmare: Some hippie chick is going to ruin his mescaline trip.

That’s not exactly what happens, though I shouldn’t say anything more. Suffice it to say that Jamie—who for the movie’s entirety is singularly obsessed with getting high, such that he cuts a cactus shoot out of an elderly woman’s yard—has his expectations upended. And Crystal—who for the movie’s entirety spouts airy platitudes like, “Unleash the voice of the unconsciousness that only belongs to the divine and the fairies,” and more than once shows her pubic (and underarm) hair—turns out to be someone very different than she seemed, upending the entire narrative to such a degree that I, too, felt under the influence of drugs and in search of … something. What is happening here? And what does it all mean?

Jamie and Crystal Fairy, though slightly exaggerated for comic effect, are still truer representations of gringo backpackers than I’ve ever seen on film, which is why sometimes they are as irritating as they are uproarious (fortunately, the characters alternate; my allegiance shifted at least four times during the film). It is the Chilean men, fittingly if not ironically, who are the unreal, idealized ones. All three of them are handsome and chill—patient with Jamie, welcoming to Crystal. Nothing distinguishes them, with the exception of one man’s drug abstinence, and only once do they take advantage of Jamie’s wallet, to cover gas for the road trip. Perhaps it will take an American director to get those roles right.

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  1. It’s fair to say, in fact, that most Latin Americans see backpackers this way.