Directed by Brie Larson
Starring Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Joan Cusack
Coming on the heels of the release of Captain Marvel (and the fact that it reunites that box-office behemoth’s two lead stars), it would be tempting to think of Unicorn Store as a kind of companion piece. Factually, it would be more accurate to see Captain Marvel as a Unicorn Store reunion—this Brie Larson-directed feature premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival way back in September 2017, was snapped up by Netflix for global distribution, and cannily dropped into your Netflix inbox a mere month after you’ve barely descended from your superhero-movie high. Tonally, the two movies are worlds apart: Captain Marvel is a bombastic visual-effects extravaganza about a woman summoning her inner badass; Unicorn Store is a twee, small film about a woman stumbling into adulthood.
Thematically, there are elements that connect the two—and Brie Larson’s Oscar-winning performance in 2015’s Room. Larson seems to be attracted to stories about women coming into their own, and Unicorn Store is no exception. It follows Kit (Larson) who gets kicked out of art school after presenting an eccentric, color-splashed installation of a unicorn when she was supposed to submit a self-portrait. (There is a hint of satire to an art school that grades its students by committee and checkbox, which the movie doesn’t follow through on.) Dejected, Kit moves back in with her parents Gene and Gladys (Bradley Whitford and Joan Cusack), discouraging-by-way-of-overencouraging camp counselors, and takes a stab at adulting by taking a temp job at a PR firm. While trying to decipher whether the actions of her socially awkward boss (Hamish Linklater) constitute sexual harassment, Kit receives an invitation to visit a secret store, where an unnamed salesman (Samuel L. Jackson) offers her the chance to be the owner of the unicorn of her childhood dreams…that is, if she can fulfill a few requirements first.
Kit is a woman struggling to reconcile the unicorn-loving child that she was with the sensible adult that her parents and male-dominated workplace mandate her to be—and with the help of the wry hardware store janitor (Mamoudou Athie) she recruits to build a unicorn stable in her backyard, she starts to discover that maybe there is a happy, rainbow-and-glitters middle ground between the two. She is, for all intents and purposes, a woman-child, but where an arrested-development comedy with a male protagonist would have saved the push into adulthood for the last 15 minutes, Unicorn Store has Kit making that jump in the first 15. There is also a Charlie Kaufman-esque absurdity to juxtaposing a fantastic premise (getting a real unicorn) with banal reality (proving that you have the proper home environment for said unicorn). It’s a smart, appealing touch.
Unfortunately, Unicorn Store could have used a bit more of Charlie Kaufman’s dark edge to bring its point home. As a character, Kit is harmless, an innocent soul set adrift in a world that doesn’t understand her; all her self-doubt feels like unnecessary flailing when she is, essentially, as likely a candidate for a pet unicorn as anyone is ever going to be. She refers to herself as bratty, and Samuel L. Jackson’s salesman (a character as generic as his name, despite his candy-colored suits and the gossamer party streamers in his hair) calls her selfish at one point. And yet apart from a few arguments with her parents, we see little evidence of this brattiness or selfishness. There are certainly few consequences to her actions: Kit is not so much selfish as charmingly manipulative enough to get people to do what she needs them to do.
If Kit had been written and directed to show more human frailty, we would have been given more reasons to root for her—or at the very least, more explanation for why her quirks would automatically brand her a social outcast rather than, say, a hipster running a marijuana dealership in Colorado. Despite the star marquee shining out front and its rainbow-splashed decoration, Unicorn Store has precious little worth buying into.
Unicorn Store is currently streaming on Netflix.