Following her Best Actress Oscar win for Room, Brie Larson took the ambitious step behind the camera to make her directorial debut. Unicorn Store drifted around the film airspace for some time, for a while seeming obsolete and never to surface. The film turned up at the Toronto International Film Festival (over-shadowed by fellow female first-timer Greta Gerwig with Lady Bird), and the reviews were certainly a mixed bag.
And now Unicorn Store is finally available to a wider audience with Netflix. Though, with the current Hollywood witch-hunt, this might not be the greatest moment in film history to emerge in such a way. That’s contemporary cinema criticism for you – let so many promising films slip through the net, while you cast a cynical rod at the means and methods of film distribution.
“She is drawing unicorns, and beaming as only Larson can, and in seconds the childhood spine of the film is set.”
Unicorn Store opens with actual home footage of Brie Larson as a young girl – I was like “that is really her!” She is drawing unicorns, and beaming as only Larson can, and in seconds the childhood spine of the film is set. Written by Samantha McIntyre, this makes Unicorn Store an apt choice for Larson to direct.
Already described as twee, a little simple, only a little deep, pretty much everywhere you go, the levels of film satisfaction vary from critic to critic. There’s a self-awareness in reviewing this film with caution (not from myself so much), as it flickers with glitter from time to time, and has a small sense of the magical. Unicorn Store is, though, about the inner pains of growing up, facing the big bad world, and the hesitation of leaving our toys behind. “You guys still like me, right?” Larson’s character asks her Care Bears.
The plot is effectively running before it can walk, as we immediate get the gist of Kit (Larson) and her art school no-no. She is still living at home, in the basement it seems, of her parents’ house (pitch-perfect comradery between Joan Cusack and Bradley Whitford). Rejected, dejected, Kit’s life as we know it, pauses, then rewinds. Sort of.
Succumbing to crashing in front of the television, under a blanket, Kit wallows for a while. At the same time, facing her parents and their text-book pamper talks, unable to detach from their ‘Emotion Quest’ roles. Kit retorts by throwing on an old suit of her mother’s, and getting herself a temp position at a PR firm. Between photocopying her hand, casually oblivious to the maleness of the corporate world, Kit receives a mysterious pop-up card, inviting her to The Store. Intriguing.
“Complete with an ice cream parlor, pillows, ottomans, oh, and wi-fi. Hard to believe – isn’t it?”
The office environment does provide much of the film’s comic elements. The introduction of the unhinged vice-president, Gary (Hamish Linklater), screams of romantic interested – but the narrative throws us a refreshing red herring. One moment, with Gary’s own aspirations, forms one of the funniest realization pauses in years.
Other than that, it is business as usual. A mellow whiff of the clerical sector dynamics, what with male fantasies of half-naked models pushing a vacuum cleaner. Kit, though, does find a loveable, fallible alley in Sabrina (Martha MacIsaac), who provides that perfect, unknowingly humorous supporting player.
As the curiosity of The Store invite overwhelms any other segment of Kit’s current life, she heads off to the, yep, red neon signed place. There, to her surprise, she meets The Salesman (Samuel L. Jackson), surrounded by sparkly, vibrant dream-like interior decor. Complete with an ice cream parlor, pillows, ottomans, oh, and wi-fi. Hard to believe – isn’t it?
The Salesman, donned in dapper vivid attire, and a fittingly jolly persona, gives us yet another example of how Samuel L. Jackson built a career on just letting his hair down. Though, here, his fluffy hair is glitter stringed-up. And it suits him. Kit is told, basically, she must now qualify for the ownership of an actual unicorn, by building a loving habitat for it. Kit is split between suspicion and excitement. Is this all real? Made-up? Is The Salesman a conman?
“Larson delivers lines and looks so effortlessly, merging a kind of deadpan wit and genuine befuddlement.”
Virgil (Mamoudou Athie), seems to think the latter. Kit accidentally acquires his services, when she seeks advice at the hardware store where he works. It seems all the more plausible, their collaboration, given he just appears to be given all the skivvy jobs there. Soon, Virgil is the grounded one (perhaps most of all in the entire film), taking Kit’s exuberant spark with a pinch of salt, sometimes a frown, but without belittling her.
You see, Kit is not trapped in her own private fantasy world. She has her doubts, like anyone would. But she has a logical longing for the magical to be a reality. “Graph paper can’t love you back.” she states in opposition of her newfound working life. Kit is not wholly free-spirited, but mercifully neither is she insufferable. You root for her joyous spirit, her feet are on the ground, and she is dumbstruck by the lack of parental understanding or those who think the worse of her.
Brie Larson is the sweetest candy in the store. The smartest too. Naturally funny, the right amount of earnest, Kit is full of creative gusto, with a twinkle in the eye that simply tells us, she is not stupid. Larson delivers lines and looks so effortlessly, merging a kind of deadpan wit and genuine befuddlement. Her comic timing and execution is spot-on, really making the screenplay greater than the mere words on a page.
“Unicorn Store is not a perfect film, no. But it doesn’t need to be.”
Larson, too, has bags of courage as a director. Unicorn Store is not an easy sell. Those whimsical comedy movies might belong more in the 1980s. Or even kids television. Though this is most definitely an adult’s film. True, there are some flimsy cliches, not-quite touching, but harmless. “If you were a building, this is what you’d look like.” – Larson knows that is corny as hell, but also sweet. And these moments are affecting – in the movies or in real life.
We have all got lost in nostalgia at some point. Faced with the daunting prospects of adulthood. Where to go; what to do; how to do it. Even in years and years of being a grown-up, I still wonder. Unicorn Store might have tinges of multi-coloured bliss, but it also paints a thinly-layered picture of our mental health.
Unicorn Store is not a perfect film, no. But it doesn’t need to be. It doesn’t collapse into schmaltz, nor does it push too hard to get to the extremes of the film’s emotional corners. The film even closes, not on the smooching of lips, but the holding of hands.
Kit is not a failure, in spite of the subtle prods. And neither is the film. We need to get off our high horses in judging the merits of such. It charmed me, never blew me away, but throughout Unicorn Store, I felt good. It might just be that simple. Maybe more of us should embrace the child in us, more of the time.