One of the finds at 2014’s SXSW Film Festival was Leah Meyerhoff’s directorial debut “I Believe in Unicorns,” about the aftermath of a 16-year-old girl’s first sexual experience, and the velocity of teenage love. This young-lovers-on-the-lam film is by a newcomer and stars a newcomer, Natalia Dyer, who plays Davina, a callow yet curious 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 snatches Davina’s virginity on a dirty mattress in the back room of an underground club, a mosh pit thrashing away across the walls. Though not exactly a match made in heaven — but definitely dying to get out of their insular world — 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, 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. “The whole motivation behind making this film and, honestly, the whole motivation of why I became a director,” Meyerhoff said in our interview, “was to tell stories with authentic female protagonists. Always, this film in my mind was a subjective story told from the perspective of this 16-year-old girl.”
Meyerhoff shot for three weeks in and around the East Bay, “a stunning, diverse landscape” that’s “not like New York, where everyone is jaded.”
To cast an actual 16-year-old, Meyerhoff went to the Coen brothers and asked for the top three young girls who didn’t get the part that ultimately went to Hailee Steinfeld in “True Grit.” “I just fell in love with Natalia,” Meyerhoff said. “The other autobiographical portion of the film is that my mother has multiple sclerosis, and has been in a wheelchair since I was born. Naturally we worked this into Natalia’s backstory.”
In the film, there’s more than one fairly graphic sexual encounter between 16-year-old Davina—played with startling grace by Dyer—and Sterling, who as played by Peter Vack, seethes with the handsome menace. Nothing like being bent over a bail of hay and fucked doggie-style to cap off an affair to remember.
For these scenes, Meyerhoff kept a skeleton crew on set: just her, the two actors, and Dyer’s mother. It was a question of “how to approach the more intimate scenes of the film on a practical level because of child pornography laws, and labor laws. But it’s all strategically shot,” said Meyerhoff, adding that “on an emotional level it helps that I’m a female director, I’m bringing my own vulnerability, and Natalia knew it was coming from an honest place.”
Fantasy set pieces, both stop-motion and time-lapse, capture Davina’s quixotic reveries a la Michel Gondry at his most earnest (“Science of Sleep”), yet the film has the visceral and visual grit of Amy Seimetz’s “Sun Don’t Shine.” Writer/director/actress and Meyerhoff film bud Seimetz also happens to have a bit part in “Unicorns,” which was shot on super 8 and super 16mm.
Like Seimetz’s debut, “Unicorns” reminds that the current generation of working filmmakers continues to draw inspiration from Terrence Malick’s “Badlands.” “Unicorns” composer Sasha Gordon borrows the plunky “Gassenhauer” theme from Malick’s own debut about two young lovers on the run. For Meyerhoff, that film was always a reference point. “But in my mind,” she said, “‘Unicorns’ plays against the expectation that when you see a film about young people, you expect them to rob banks or kill someone.
“But in reality, first love and teen romance have enough drama in itself. It feels like life or death. We’ve all been in volatile relationships where you know you’re in the wrong relationship, but you’re desperately clinging to this fantasy, and it becomes an addiction.”
Now Meyerhoff is repped by ICM, enjoys running her female film collective Film Fatale, and she’s packaging a new project that will also explore complex women, but with adults this time. In a world of increasingly stentorian female filmmakers, Meyerhoff is one to watch.