Edinburgh International Film Festival

Magic Magic (2013)

Starring: Michael Cera, Juno Temple, Emily Browning, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Agustín Silva

Directed by: Sebastián Silva

Rating: 1 2 3 and a half

Juno Temple as Alicia in Magic Magic

One has to wonder what the mother of fragile teenager Alicia was thinking when she packed her daughter off to the wilds of Chile to spend time on a remote island with her cousin Sarah (Emily Browning). Right from the get-go, it's clear that Alicia (another startlingly vulnerable performance from Killer Joe's Juno Temple) has issues: hollow-eyed, straggly-haired, pale as death, she's a poster girl for neurotic angst.

But as if being thrown, alone, into a foreign country where you don't speak the language wasn't daunting enough, Sarah soon abandons her, clearly not on the pretext she claims, leaving her to fend for herself amidst her cousin's unwelcoming friends: brusque, impatient Barbara (Catalina Sandino Moreno), kind but off-hand Agustin (Agustín Silva) and the token asshole you always get on group holidays, Michael Cera's camp, whiny, casually cruel Brink, who delights in alternately flattering and tormenting the insecure teen.

Michael Cera as Brink in Magic Magic

Jittery, paranoid and unable to sleep, Alicia is unnerved and then unhinged by her alien surroundings and unsympathetic companions, suffering first from unsettling auditory hallucinations and then from full blown waking dreams, so that sometimes we, like Alicia, find it hard to distinguish between what's really happening and what's occurring only in her head. Unlike, say, Lovely Molly, however, there's no suggestion that her problems are anything other than psychological. In fact, Magic Magic is what the Evil Dead remake could have been without, well, the evil dead: a disturbing portrayal of mental disintegration, exacerbated by isolation and insensitive treatment.

The film is also a damning indictment of humankind's inability to cope with mental illness: the ministrations of the urbanites (solution: pump her full of drugs), is as hopeless as the response of the rural Chilean locals, who try to force the sickness from her with age-old superstitious rituals. As a society, it would appear we've learnt nothing since the days of the Witchfinder General, when mental illness got you burnt at the stake…

Chilling, intriguing and ultimately baffling, this is a well-made ‘woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown' horror/thriller in the style of Repulsion or the aforementioned Lovely Molly, corner-of-the-eye camerawork and an oppressive soundtrack conspiring to create a cloying atmosphere of uncertainty and mounting dread. Frustratingly, Magic Magic raises more questions than its narrative can answer, but it's interesting exploring these questions all the same.

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