Director: Brie Larson
Stars: Brie Larson, Mamoudou Athie, Bradley Whitford
Arriving in the wake of Captain Marvel, but shot back in 2017, Brie Larson’s directorial debut lands this week on Netflix at arguably her commercial peak thus far (turns out leading a Marvel flick tops winning Best Actress at the Oscars (sigh)). Spending two years in distribution hell is often a big red warning flag, though that needn’t always be the case (exhibit A: You’re Next). However, on watching the thing, it feels as though Unicorn Store isn’t just two years past its prime, but maybe… fifteen?
Larson stars as Kit; a young woman kicked out of art school and living in her parents’ garage. A ‘failure’. With reality kicking at her shins, times are tough for Kit, who prefers her existence to be fringed with pastel colours and glitter. She’s the embodiment of the so-called millennial ‘snowflake’. She takes a temp job in an office working a copying machine and, naturally, she’s invited to a store tailored solely to her deepest desires. A store that sells… unicorns.
But you can’t just buy your dreams in life. As The Salesman (Larson’s Captain Marvel co-star Samuel L Jackson) points out, she needs to prove she can suitably take care of a unicorn. So, she employs hardware store employee Virgil (Mamoudou Athie) to build her a stable.
Even without going into the details of a B-story that oddly mixes vacuum advertising with sexual harassment, the above overview ought to key you in to the fizzing, irreverent tone of Larson’s candy coloured offering. The vibe is directly in keeping with the slew of mid 00’s indie dramedies that flew out of America. 2004 would have been the perfect time for this flick, leading to the startling question; could it be we’ve arrived at Garden State nostalgia already? Fuck I feel old.
Fortunately, Larson’s Unicorn Store has a lot more heart than Garden State and it veers closer to the off-kilter comedic sensibility found in, say, Marjane Satrapi’s The Voices (minus the gore and violence). Larson is a committed performer, and she comes at Kit with absolute confidence and, more importantly, respect. Larson respects this woman, with her commitment to maintaining childhood fantasies. There’s a case to be made for Kit suffering a degree of arrested development, but Unicorn Store doesn’t make its protagonist the butt of its jokes. Kit isn’t a fool because she dares to entertain her dreams; this trait reads as actually empowering in its own way. A kind of stubborn streak of self-defence. The film is about transitioning though. It is about letting go. And also how weird personally targeted advertising feels.
Larson’s direction is solid, functional. Like a lot of actors who take on the role, she often defers to her peers, giving them the space to perform and have those performances hold the frame. There are authorial choices. She enjoys an interior that allows for a wide shot, and she indulges the film’s rainbow colour palette. But Kit’s arrival at, ahem, The Store, doesn’t just collide colours; it cycles through them like Dario Argento’s Suspiria (wow, these reference points are veering all over the map).
Occasionally, Samantha McIntyre’s screenplay throws out a line that Larson turns into gold. Personal favourites included Kit angrily yelling, “I’m going to buy graph paper!” or apologetically explaining, “Sorry, these are compliments” on first meeting Virgil. As often, however, Unicorn Store veers into the undeniably cloying. “If you were a building, this is what you’d look like” is a particular howler. Larson’s film may be confident, but it doesn’t always seem to be aware that it sounds like a cat poster.
I suppose the clue was there all along in the name. If you’re not willing to go along with the ride when a movie’s called Unicorn Store then you should probably scroll past this one. Larson’s film is delightfully feminine, saccharine and silly, quirky and big-hearted.
Another line from the movie succinctly sums up its overall aura.
“Wow. That’s really cute.”
How you choose to receive that is up to you. I liked this movie, but I’m also aware that its particular pitch will prove very divisive.