Some people say movies like Napoleon Dynamite, Juno, or pretty much anything by Wes Anderson, are quirky for the sake of being quirky. That they try too hard to be whimsical, and “different.” The people who feel that way probably shouldn’t watch Unicorn Store, the little indie marvel (pun intended) from Brie Larson.
The following review will be spoiler free.
Directed By: Brie Larson
Written By: Samantha McIntyre
Kit (Larson) flunks out of art school, and has to move back in with her parents. After seeing some very on-the-nose programming while channel surfing, she gets a temp job at a public relations firm. Kit begins to act like an adult, in the way a child playing house would. She quite literally packs away her childhood, puts on her mother’s old business suit, and starts drinking coffee, eating kale, and buying random office supplies.
In the midst of all of her efforts to grow up, Kit is presented with a series of Hogwarts-letter-esque notes and invitations. As it turns out, she has been given a chance to get the only thing she ever asked for as a child: a unicorn. An internal (and somewhat external) struggle ensues, between moving on, and going back.
Unicorn Store debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) back in 2017, and has been awaiting a wider release since. The release of Captain Marvel likely motivated Netflix to take the leap, and distribute this on their streaming service. Not only was it directed and co-produced by Larson, it also stars her and Samuel L. Jackson. People are pretty interested in that combination at the moment, so releasing Unicorn Store now was a smart move.
You can’t go anywhere Netflix-related right now, without seeing mention of this movie. Whether you are logging on to your account, or browsing any form of social media, you’ll see the image of a paint-smeared Brie Larson laying in grass. By most accounts, this bombardment brand marketing has caused more annoyance than interest, but at least people are talking about it.
The Right People For the Job
Unicorn Store wouldn’t have worked as well without some of these actors. For instance, Kit’s parents would likely be completely insufferable if they weren’t portrayed by Joan Cusack and Bradley Whitford. They have the forced enthusiasm, and clenched-teeth words of encouragement, of parents who aren’t sure how to relate to their kid as an adult. Gladys (Cusack) and Gene (Whitford) run a day camp for troubled teens called Emotion Quest. Their somewhat clueless, yet joyful, approach to this organization is actually one of the best things about this movie. Again, likely because of the casting. The characters aren’t really given a lot to do on paper, but veterans like these can make any role into a memorable one.
Speaking of memorable, Kit’s boss, Gary (Linklater) is so absolutely creepy, and yet somehow funny, you can’t help but admire the performance. There are many layers to this character, none of which you’ll want to peel off (that was a haphazard reference to a line in the movie). He almost seems like someone who would’ve fit perfectly into the movie Office Space.
And then there is the wonderful Virgil (Athie). Virgil is such a perfect blend of sarcasm and shyness, you want to be his friend by the end of his first scene. Telling you too much about him might be considered a spoiler… or several, actually. So, I will tell you he is an employee at a hardware store, which Kit naively thinks means he can build anything. And quickly. Also, he is a very important character.
The Salesman Really Sells It
Now, let’s just get down to what really makes this little engine think it can. The Salesman. Samuel L. Jackson as a unicorn salesman is pretty much guaranteed gold, before he utters a word. I mean, you smiled just reading that sentence, admit it. He is the glue holding this whole operation together, really. I don’t think as many people would be willing to watch it without his presence. I suspect Larson knew that. He brings a credibility to a quirky indie fantasy-comedy many people would otherwise scroll past. His character is pure magic, and makes you believe every word he’s saying. And somehow, he can make a line like, “graph paper can’t love you back!,” absolutely hilarious. No, really.
A short film centered on this character dolling out dreams to various customers would be worth a watching. What they’re selling would change according to each person. Actually, that might make a good SNL sketch, if Jackson hosts anytime soon (and this movie becomes popular enough to reference in such a way).
Maybe Not the Right People For the Job
As much as I hate to say this, given it’s essentially her project, I think Larson may be the weak link of Unicorn Store. While she absolutely nails some of who Kit is, the character could have been more. Kit is meant to be someone for the audience to rally behind, and sometimes we can’t. She flip-flops between warm and nearly childlike, to downright mean. She goes from having no confidence, to feeling entitled. These are not changes that happen over time, they happen within the same scene. While some of this makes her more human, it is jarring in spots.
There is an issue sometimes, when a film is directed by its star, and I like to call it, “‘moving on’ syndrome.” This occurs when the actor-director draws decent-to-great performances out of everyone else, but will perhaps not do as many takes themselves. There are times you can almost sense Larson running into frame, delivering her lines, then running out of frame to immediately watch the playback. Then, it’s as if she said, “meh, that works… moving on!” Woody Allen is a good example of this phenomenon in several of his films.
Of course, Larson shouldn’t shoulder all of the blame, here, as the script could have been more solid, as well. Screenwriter Samantha McIntyre seems to be living out her own childhood fantasies, here (complete with a cameo), without much regard for the characters. Just about everyone could’ve been given more to do.
And also… Kit seems to be working in advertising, not public relations. Not sure what happened there, unless it’s a metaphor for not knowing what you’re doing.
Unicorn Store is sometimes as whimsical as its title suggests, has a (mostly) solid cast, and is entertaining. It is often brilliant — the first 25 minutes are particularly solid. You start off thinking, “this is going to be great!,” then it becomes… okay. It’s never exactly bad, but it doesn’t make its way back to great, either. This may have been more successful with a shorter run time, which is weird to say of something that’s only 92 minutes long to start with. As a short, with The Salesman as the lead, I think Unicorn Store would’ve made the rounds at more festivals, and become an indie darling. As it stands now, it’s just something to watch on Netflix.
Thank you for reading! What are your thoughts on Unicorn Store? Comment down below!
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