A much discussed topic in the film world recently has been the dearth of women directors in mainstream filmmaking and the impact that this has on the representation of girls and women, and their experiences on screen. Thankfully, the independent film world has a much better track record with female filmmakers, and writer/director’s Leah Meyerhoff’s “I Believe in Unicorns” is a fine example of just why a female point of view can be so important, so necessary in capturing female stories. An all-too-familiar and complicated story of young love is the premise of ‘Unicorns,’ but Meyerhoff brings a fresh, creative, and entirely original take to the tale, weaving together a work that is at once fantastical, evocative, and starkly realistic.
Natalia Dyer stars as Davina, a luminous young teen — a dreamer and an artist who longs for more outside of her small, bleak life caring for her disabled single mother. Long-haired skater punk Sterling (Peter Vack) represents all things adventurous and romantic, and before long, they sweep each other off their feet (Davina has just as much a hand in it as he does). Like “It Felt Like Love,” another female-directed film about teen romance, ‘Unicorns’ is a film that accounts for the active sexual desire of the teenage girl, who isn’t simply a virginal maiden with no agency but a young woman exploring the many facets of burgeoning sexuality, whether sweet or scary (as it so often can be).
Davina and Sterling set off on a lovers-on-the-lam road trip, play-acting at a kind of romantic rebelliousness; a Bonnie & Clyde fantasy that doesn’t quite go all the way. As they realize all too soon however, though they’ve run away from their shitty lives and troubled parents, getting rid of family baggage is not so easy. As the saying goes, wherever you go, there you are. The road trip offers a break from the ordinary, but there’s no escaping yourself.
When things turn south, Davina loses herself in a fantasy, dream, or vision. These sequences, established from the outset of the film, are creative and wholly original and lovely, utilizing stop-motion animation, glorious costumes, and props, playing with light and fire, a hand-sewn unicorn either guiding or menacing Davina on her journey. These fantasies, though, remain rooted in the realities of the world, which are at once dark, beautiful and terrifying — the film rides that edge, skittering on a razor’s edge between tenderness, passion, and violence. It’s confusing, like it should be, like how it actually is.
The performances here are riveting, particularly Dyer as the teen who contains multitudes of contradictions: she seems fragile but demonstrates her strength, she’s moody and also joyful, she’s so painfully young and innocent but coming into her own as woman. Vack, as Sterling, isn’t given quite so much to work with as Dyer, but he’s skillful in switching from loving to menacing to cajoling in the blink of an eye. Their physical performances are remarkable, as well, in moments of playful roughhousing that suddenly turn violent. It’s bold and uncomfortable, but captures something really true in a way that isn’t often seen.
The narrative turns baggy and slows down around some of their road trip adventures, with Davina escaping into reality more and more as time goes on, and it wraps up a tad too neatly in the end, after such an emotionally complex and complicated journey. But it’s a film that is unique yet authentic in its perspective, and a truly creative and beautiful piece, original yet consistent in its style, all serving the truth of the story and the emotions within.
“I Believe in Unicorns” is a magical-realist journey hosted by an imaginative protagonist, but for all the delving into Davina’s subconscious, the film represents an experience that is all too common for young women, to varying degrees. It rings true and resonates as real even in its fantasies, because it is rooted in a place of authenticity, in subjectivity, in emotion, and in storytelling. And that is what makes a film like this work so well. [B+]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 SXSW Film Festival.