REVIEW: Unicorn Store (2019)

Release Poster – Netflix

The following is a review of Unicorn Store — Directed by Brie Larson.

Unicorn Store — Brie Larson’s directorial debut — had its original world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival back in 2017, but Larson had to wait until after she had become the titular hero of a superhero franchise before her directorial debut was distributed widely, now in April 2019. You can call it timing — good or otherwise — but, in any case, Brie Larson, an Oscar-winner and popular superhero actress, is now almost a household name. Unfortunately, I don’t think her debut feature, Unicorn Store, was worth the wait.

Brie Larson’s Unicorn Store is the story of Kit (played by Brie Larson), a female twenty-something-year-old failed rainbow-and-glitter-obsessed artist, who, following her ‘failure,’ has returned to her childhood home to live and pass out on her parents’ couch until she finds something new to get excited about. Kit is not just a child at heart, her obsessions in her artistry are also distinctly child-like. While lying on the couch, she stumbles onto commercials promising temporary success for depressed unemployed men and women, and that is the push she needs to get her going.

Inexplicably, Kit gets a temp job almost immediately at an advertising company, where everything and everyone is dressed in greyish, bland, and lifeless colors. She gets to sit in cubicles and work with a copier, during which time she is approached time and time again by her creepy, awkward, and unfunny boss, Gary (played by Hamish Linklater).

Living as an adult is not satisfying to Kit, but she is in for surprise when she receives multiple brightly-colored letters. The letters hold an address for some kind of store where she’ll get everything she wants and needs. With nothing else going for her, she takes a chance and visits this mysterious location. Greeting her there is a peculiar salesman (played by Samuel L. Jackson) who promises her that unicorns, indeed, do exist and that she can get one that will love her forever if, and only if, she manages to live up to a few demands, one of which is to build it a stable, something her new acquaintance and handyman Virgil (played by Mamoudou Athie) is willing and able to help her with.

Unicorn Store is a coming-of-age film about those who, after exiting the education system, find themselves lost with no sense of direction and with interests that seem particularly immature. It sees a quirky protagonist struggle with taking the next logical step, as she’s stuck in-between the assumed greys of adulthood and the colorful imagination of childhood. It is, from that perspective, a story that is easy to relate to, for someone like me. And yet, for the duration of Unicorn Store, I found myself largely unaffected by the picture.

It is a coming-of-age film, but, in my mind, it is severely lacking. It has an idea, there is a tonal tightrope act present, but the plot progression feels incomplete (it’s missing a few steps), none of the characters are particularly captivating (though Virgil’s straight-man act is a nice remedy to the quirky and awkward nature of the rest of the cast), and the tonal tightrope act is executed poorly. The mundanity of the advertising firm works, but the film isn’t quite quirky enough and the humor doesn’t land at all.

Furthermore, there are a couple of things that I don’t think the film made clear. One of these is that I’m not quite sure why Virgil goes along with what she wants him to do for her. I’m confused by the extent to which she seems obsessed with glitter, and I am confused by why she is alarmingly immature (I think the film had to give more of an explanation for this). Also, I needed a much better explanation of her time as an artist in school. Frustratingly, the romantic relationship in the film never works or takes off, so to speak. I think the film could’ve used another rewrite, or some additional scenes to flesh out some details. Speaking of the writing, by the way, I think there is a serious mishandling of some quite serious themes, and some of the dialogue is alarming. Throughout the film her creepy boss is interested in her, and, at one point, Kit asks Virgil: “Am I pretty enough to be sexually harassed?” It’s a line meant for comedy and to indicate naiveté, but it falls flat.

Though the film includes great comedic talent, like Sam Jackson, Joan Cusack, Bradley Whitford, and Karan Soni, the film’s moments of genuine comedy are few and far between. Brie Larson is perfectly fine as the wide-eyed Kit, but it is her chemistry with Samuel L. Jackson that makes some of the more odd moments in the film work. Jackson seems to have had a lot of fun on-set. He is, at one point, wearing a pink suit, and he is charmingly silly. He’s almost a perfect blend of Willy Wonka and his character ‘Richmond Valentine’ from Kingsman: The Secret Service. To me, however, the greatest thing about the film is the costume design. Glittery, sparkly, and colorful suits are highlights here. In Unicorn Store, costume designer Mirren Gordon-Crozier is the star.

Sometimes directorial debuts are not the shining moments of brilliance that you want them to be. Not all actors have as easy a time transitioning into behind-the-camera work as people like Jordan Peele or Bradley Cooper had. Brie Larson’s directorial debut is not exactly marvelous, but I would be interested in seeing more films directed by her. Brie Larson’s debut feature, Unicorn Store, is a quirky 90-minute millennial coming-of-age film that doesn’t quite work, in part, thanks to it being tonally uneven and unfunny.

4.5 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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