Brie Larson’s feature directorial debut, Unicorn Store, has more style than substance, but a charming lead performance and important message buoy it.
The offbeat, whimsical coming-of-age comedy Unicorn Store first premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival before finding a distribution home with Netflix. The streaming service has made a name in Hollywood for its feature film strategy, releasing a variety of movies that range from high profile acquisitions like The Cloverfield Paradox to major fare of their own like Bird Box and Roma. However, while Unicorn Store is a relatively smaller movie in terms of Netflix’s release slate, it comes with a few big names attached. Brie Larson’s feature directorial debut, Unicorn Store, has more style than substance, but a charming lead performance and important message buoy it.
Unicorn Store stars Larson as Kit, an imaginative woman who fails out of art school when a minimalist professor doesn’t appreciate her overly colorful and vibrant work. Kit returns home to her mother and father – Gladys (Joan Cusack) and Gene (Bradley Whitford) – where she feels like a disappointment, especially as her parents rave about Kevin (Karan Soni), a man Kit’s age who works at their outdoor camp. In an effort to prove she can be successful, Kit gets a temp job at a public relations company. But Kit’s life is soon changed when she’s invited to “The Store”, where she meets The Salesman (Samuel L. Jackson) who offers to sell her a unicorn – though there are a few requirements first.
Putting aside the overly ridiculous, though arguably necessary setup of an art student failing out of art school for being too creative, Unicorn Store’s offbeat premise largely works in terms of walking a fine line between reality and fantasy. Though, this line gets incredibly messy at times. The story manages to balance the more strange aspects of the story – Kit hiring a man, Virgil (Mamoudou Athie), to build her a unicorn stable – with a parallel arc of her life at the office. However, the movie works best when Kit is forced to confront the fantastical ideas of her imagination and figure out how they can fit into the reality of her life. The disparity between Kit working to achieve her childhood fantasy while also establishing her “grown up” life is where the film finds its coming-of-age story, though some of its messaging about growing up is a bit overly obvious.
Unicorn Store does a lot of telling, rather than showing, how Kit grows up and the lessons she learns along the way: you can’t buy happiness, failure isn’t a sign of immaturity, etc. Along those lines, Unicorn Store seems to have a great deal to say about growing up as an artist and not sacrificing your voice to appease those around you, but often it comes across as the movie being more focused on its messaging than telling a good, well-developed story. To be certain, the message of Unicorn Store is important, and with a script by Samantha McIntyre (Married), the film brings a much-needed female perspective to the coming-of-age genre. Kit is no doubt a character many women can relate to on some level, as she’s forced to give up the “girly” aspirations of her youth for a more straight-laced life. However, Unicorn Store is still incredibly superficial in its depiction of Kit and her coming-of-age story.
The main reason Unicorn Store works as well as it does is the performances of the main cast, Larson in particular. She manages to ground Kit in a way that feels realistic, even as it becomes more and more difficult to hold onto that suspension of disbelief that a grown woman could believe unicorns exist. Still, Larson is charming enough to get away with it, and she carries Kit’s arc well. Further, she works well across from each of her co-stars, Jackson in particular, who goes much more whimsical than usual as The Salesman. It’s an incredibly fun performance from Jackson and helps sell the movie’s more fantastical side. The Unicorn Store cast is rounded out well by Cusack and Whitford, while Athie is a wonderful match for Larson on screen in terms of charm.
Ultimately, Unicorn Store is far from a quintessential coming-of-age story, but it does offer enough of a new spin on the genre to be entertaining. Further, anyone who’s felt like they had to sacrifice creativity for success will find a relatable protagonist in Larson’s Kit. Unicorn Store isn’t likely to be one of Netflix’s breakout hits, but the low barrier of entry afforded to movies by being on one of the most popular streaming services will no doubt mean more people are willing to check it out. To be sure, Unicorn Store is worth seeing for those already interested, but its offbeat premise and heavy-handed presentation of a coming-of-age story mean it isn’t necessarily a must-watch Netflix movie.
Unicorn Store is now available for streaming on Netflix. It is 92 minutes long.
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