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REVIEW: Why ‘Unicorns’ Fest Discovery Leah Meyerhoff Is One to Watch

REVIEW: Why 'Unicorns' Fest Discovery Leah Meyerhoff Is One to Watch

One of the finds at this year’s SXSW Film Festival was Leah Meyerhoff’s directorial debut “I Believe in Unicorns,” now simply titled “Unicorns,” about the aftermath of a 16-year-old girl’s first sexual experience, and the velocity of teenage love. Fresh off its Austin premiere, the film played the Sun Valley Film Festival last weekend to warm response. No word yet on distribution.

This young-lovers-on-the-lam film is by a newcomer and stars a newcomer, Natalia Dyer, who plays Davina, a wisp of a girl with her head in the clouds and who does, indeed, believe in unicorns — or, at least, the wonder and magic that such mythological creatures signify.

Love, or something like it, hits like a wrecking ball when she meets Sterling (Peter Vack), a dude with a studded leather vest, a punk bad and a piece-of-shit car. He’s the definition of emotional unavailability, and it isn’t long until he steals Davina’s virginity on a dirty mattress in the back room of an underground club, a mosh pit thrashing away through the walls. Though not exactly a match made in heaven — but definitely dying to get out of their small town — Davina and Sterling hit the road, and as she comes of age, she also comes undone in the process, learning just how screwed-up Sterling really is, and how her own naivete hasn’t prepared her for the very adult world of sex and love.

Meyerhoff shot “Unicorns” in her hometown of Berkeley, and in the house she grew up in, casting her own mother, Toni Meyerhoff, as Davina’s. So it’s a deeply personal film– that any one-time high school wallflower can relate to. Though the fantasy set pieces, both stop-motion and time-lapse, that capture Davina’s quixotic reveries border on the twee, smacking of Michel Gondry at his most earnest (“Science of Sleep”), the film has the visceral and visual grit of Amy Seimetz’s “Sun Don’t Shine.” Writer/director/actress Seimetz also happens to have a bit part in “Unicorns,” which was shot on super 8 and super 16mm.

“Unicorns” reminds that the current generation of working filmmakers, like Seimetz, continues to draw inspiration from Terrence Malick’s “Badlands.” “Unicorns” composer Sasha Gordon even goes as far as re-appropriating the plunky “Gassenhauer” theme from Malick’s own debut about two young lovers on the run. The hat tip is intentional, but overstated.

While the film gets kudos for carefully unpeeling the psychology of its young (anti-)heroine, “Unicorns” also contains a few fairly graphic sexual encounters between 16-year-old Davina, played with startling grace by Dyer, and Sterling, seething with the handsome Vack’s silent menace. Nothing like being bent over a bail of hay and fucked doggie-style to cap off an affair to remember.

“Unicorns” is so narratively thin, it could be a short, and Meyerhoff’s scrapbook style will irritate some, and enrapture others. But in a world of increasingly stentorian female filmmakers, she’s one to watch.

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