A millennial fairy tale that’s very confused about who actually belongs to that demographic cohort (aren’t we all), Brie Larson’s “Unicorn Store” is too adult for kids, too childlike for adults, and too muddled for the motley lot of misfits and dreamers who just want to think different. It’s a movie that sustains its strained plot with a huge heart — a movie that redeems its empty characters with a terrific cast. Most of all, it’s a movie that reminds you why “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” opted not to have a subplot about sexual harassment.
Larson, a creative force of nature who also stars in and produced her feature-length directorial debut, plays an aimless twentysomething named Kit. As a child, Kit was obsessed with unicorns. As an adult, Kit is still a child. We’re told that she dreams of being an artist (her ambitions remain strangely unclear), but she appears to get kicked out of grad school when she paints a blobby rainbow as a self-portrait (the circumstances behind her expulsion remain strangely unclear). Moving home with her hippie parents, California youth counselors played by Joan Cusack and Bradley Whitford, Kit sinks into a familiar despondency. Things don’t exactly improve when she lands a temp job at an ad agency, or when her her awkward temp boss (Hamish Linklater) comes onto her with the force of 1,000 lawsuits waiting to happen.
Fortunately for our emotionally stunted heroine, her fairy godfather is about to make himself known. Luring Kit into his sparkly lair by sending the girl a batch of mysterious notes, The Salesman (a delightfully Willy Wonka-esque Samuel L. Jackson) is waiting for her in his underground store. But it’s not just any store — it’s a unicorn store. The Salesman only sells one thing: Unicorns. And he doesn’t sell them to just anybody. If Kit wants to have the mythical pet she’s dreamed of since at least the early ’90s, she’s going to have to prove that she’s worthy of owning one (the criteria for doing so are — wait for it — strangely unclear, but they involve gluing a whole bunch of glitter onto a vacuum). By this point in the film, of course, it’s already obvious that Samantha McIntyre’s script is working in an allegorical mode that prioritizes morals over means, and so how the Unicorn Store works is a lot less important than the fact that The Salesman is rocking a pink suit and an afro that’s strewn with the shiny guts of exploded party poppers.
Every bit as twee as its title might lead you to believe, “Unicorn Store” charts a wayward journey of self-growth that never achieves even the slightest hint of narrative momentum. The film is fueled by little more than Larson’s sheer force of will; while her recent acting roles have trended towards drama, she displays some fierce comedic chops that keep this thing from choking to death on its own sentimentality. It’s all the more frustrating, then, that Larson doesn’t get better lines (“you don’t want to be a temp forever” is the most clever joke here, and it’s recycled too many times), and that Kit is such a hazily sketched character. Most compelling in the early stages of the story when she’s doing menial tasks at the ad agency — a true original who’s forced to make copies — Kit soon becomes knotted in a tangle of semi-related wants. She doesn’t want to be like everyone else. She doesn’t want to live without magic. She doesn’t want to grow up. She just wants a unicorn.
She’s a unicorn unto herself, and it’s hard to believe that she exists in this world. Larson has an exquisitely keen attention for the film’s more fantastical details, evident in everything from the incredible dresses Kit wears to the way her ringtone sounds like a magic wand, but the director never quite finds a way to reconcile those flourishes with the mundanity of real life. Kit always feels different, but she often seems unintentionally demented. At this point in her life, it seems less like a case of arrested development than it a case of someone having a dissociative episode.
It’s wonderful that the protagonist isn’t a manic pixie dream girl, but Larson’s decision to only half-commit to the fairy tale vibe leaves the lead character stranded. Not even her new friend Virgil (instantly winsome “Patti Cake$” survivor Mamoudou Athie) can quite cut through the crazy. A hardware store employee whom Kit recruits to build her unicorn stable, Virgil is the only one who tries to meet Kit at her level, and their notably sexless friendship is not without its charms. But his willingness to go along with things becomes too hard to believe, even if you’re willing to meet the movie on its quirky wavelength. By the time The Salesman has to decide if Kit deserves a unicorn, the question no longer seems relevant to what she needs, even in the abstract.
Larson does an impressive job of pulling triple duty, even when the script gets in her way, and it’s easy to see that she has as much potential behind the camera as she does in front of it. There’s also a palpable sincerity to her filmmaking, and every frame of this open-hearted debut suggests that Larson truly wants to be an advocate for the the different and the dispossessed, that she truly wants “Unicorn Store” to reaffirm the value of those voices that mainstream storytelling has always silenced. It doesn’t — but she does.
“Unicorn Store” premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.