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Film Review: Unicorn Store

Unicorn Store (2019; Directed by Brie Larson)

Unicorn Store is Brie Larson’s feature directorial debut.  My stars, is it ever just such a first movie. Heartfelt and sincere but clumsily self-indulgent and navel-gazing, made with energy and enthusiasm that quickly tips into desperate full swings at being unique and meaningful, full of raw potential but also full of choices that a more seasoned and assured filmmaker would not have made, or would have made better. It’s earnest but far too cute, and full of ideas and even narrative/thematic conduits for those ideas that are ossified and hardened like fossils in the independent film soil layer. It’s about growing up and finding yourself and being creative and individual and self-accepting in the context of the vast, reductive dehumanizing machine of corporate capitalist labour, but through the metaphor of getting a unicorn. It could have been made precisely 20 years ago, a gentler female-centric Fight Club, and might have even snatched a second-tier Oscar nom. It’s kind of another Garden State, but not as deep (what a thing to say!). A lot of critics hate movies like this. I kind of liked it.

Because, you know, I like Brie Larson. She’s got presence onscreen and she’s funny and poised and self-effacing. She makes her movies better by being in them, mostly, and has good liberal politics and uses her fame and clout to spotlight vital issues. In between winning a Best Actress Oscar for 2015’s Room and featuring in a billion-dollar-grossing superhero blockbuster or two earlier this year, Larson directed and starred in this light but not unaffecting slice of fantasy/comedy/drama whimsy. She makes herself the centre of the show in Unicorn Store, rightly gauging that her involvement will lasoo what audience interest can be captured mostly on its own. Shot late in 2016 and premiered at TIFF in September 2017, the film didn’t get a release until Netflix hustled it out in the wake of Captain Marvel making Larson a movie star and pop culture icon (at least until Avengers: Endgame sidelined her character less than two months later; in the age of saturation-level online Hot Take cultural criticism, a month can seem like a decade).

Unicorn Store does make it clear that Brie Larson is not a great director, at least not yet though maybe not never. Working from a screenplay by Samantha McIntyre, Unicorn Store blends a poor-misunderstood-white-girl bildungsroman narrative arc with grace notes of depression and lack of self-confidence, then dumps in a quart of the bright neon food colouring of over-precious magic realism. Kit (Larson) is shown in a home-video montage (which looks to be made up of real clips of Larson’s own youth) growing up as a playful and creative young girl with a flair for art with rainbow colours and glitter. This girlish flamboyance in her artistic output gets her kicked out (or failed out) of art school; Larson and her cinematographer Brett Pawlak compose a soberly-attired, disapproving jury of professors shaking their heads juxtaposed with rainbow-painted Kit and her rainbow-painted canvas behind her. It won’t be the last time her glitter dreams are dashed by serious institutional gatekeepers who find them out of step with dominant trends, though in both cases the punishment added to her rejection seems a tad too harsh.

Anyway, a deflated Kit moves home with her parents (Bradley Whitford and Joan Cusack), who run self-empowerment camping trips for troubled young adults under the sobriquet of “Emotion Quest”, make her eat kale and quinoa all the time, and just don’t understand, oh my god. Kit thinks they’re disappointed in her but it becomes clear that Kit is just disappointed in herself and projecting those feelings onto others in her life. Nonetheless determined to mitigate that disappointment, she awkwardly but surprisingly successfully pursues temp work at a public relations company, where her boss Gary (Hamish Linklater) hovers around her sexual-harrassingly and his favour earns her a shot at a pitch for an advertising campaign for a vacuum cleaner.

At the same time, however, Kit begins to receive enigmatic multichromatic invitation cards with her name on them, culminating in one that invites her to a nondescript abandoned urban storefront which, when she enters it, turns out to be an opulently-appointed titular shop for mythological horned rainbow horses, presided over by The Salesman (Samuel L. Jackson, Larson’s Captain Marvel co-star). He insistently but enigmatically informs her that she has been chosen as a potential owner for a unicorn, but before one is ordered for her, she must complete a series of tasks, such as building the unicorn a suitable home, obtaining it nutritious food (hay dyed in bright colours, as it turns out), and, perhaps most difficult, prepare a loving environment in which it can thrive. Kit contracts an inexperienced hardware store shop-boy named Virgil (Mamoudou Athie) to help her build a unicorn stable and their interactions grow to friendship and even to low-simmer, chaste romance, but she doesn’t tell him or her parents about her imminent unicorn ownership, rightly believing it to sound a little crazy and perhaps even like a swindle.

Despite informational folders and official-sounding customs-like forms and The Salesman’s tantalizing details, the unicorn is of course a metaphor for Kit’s own sense of self-worth, her core identity valuation beyond how she is defined by her parents or her corporate employers or her respected art professor (who was the first artist to put a stick in a box, as she defends his credentials to a doubtful Virgil) or by the society we live in, maaaaannn. At the heart of the unicorn metaphor is a stiff defence of the aesthetics of young womanhood, re-appropriating the oft-maligned, stereotypical bright and twee signifiers of girliness like rainbows and fantasy creatures as symbols of feminine freedom, creativity, and self-definition rather than as backhanded negative symbols of silly, unserious immaturity.

This metaphor clearly appeals to the self-described feminist Larson, and is contrasted with the serial male harassment and sexual objectification of Kit’s workplace (although these are mostly played lightly, for laughs). Dismissing or marginalizing Unicorn Store as little more than cute but shallow on the basis of these central ideas has a similarly sexist bent to it, especially given the gender alignment of this particular reviewer. Kit’s climactic meeting with her unicorn and the emotional wallop it packs should not be underestimated by any means, but it remains undeniable that the movie’s approach to its ideas on social and professional expectations, corporate culture, and women’s fraught place within those things can run towards the facile and the unconvincing.

Larson keeps the tone of Unicorn Store forever light, as colourful tissue paper floating on drafts of air. Her confidence with the camera isn’t as high as it could be, and therefore many moments and images lose potential punch due to how she uses it, how she frames herself and her surroundings onscreen. This means that when Unicorn Store wants to make a point, it often does not land. Things that may have been memorable about it flitter by, flash and fade like brief rainbows after light showers. If it’s very hard to hate a movie like this, so inclined to be mildly liked, then it’s hard to fall in love with it, too. As a directorial debut, Brie Larson could have done worse than Unicorn Store. Hopefully she learns enough from it to do better.

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