‘Unicorn Store’ Review: Brie Larson’s Directorial Debut Is a Syrupy Coming of Age Tale
In Unicorn Store, Brie Larson does double duty in front of and behind the camera, starring in her own directorial debut as a young woman reluctant to abandon her childhood fantasies. That familiar coming-of-age premise is told with awkward, deadpan humor that never quite lands. Larson establishes herself as a competent director from a visual standpoint, but Unicorn Store struggles to nail down a consistent tone. It’s a quirky little movie that takes its whimsical embrace-your-inner-kid metaphor much too seriously.
Unicorn Store follows Larson’s Kit, an art student who gets kicked out of college for ambiguous reasons and must move back home. Her chipper parents, played with Looney Tunes buoyancy by Joan Cusack and Bradley Whitford, pester her about getting a real job and doing something worthwhile with her life. Fed up and convinced she’s a disappointment, Kit decides to get a temp job at a marketing agency. But just as she’s trying her best at being an adult, a series of mysterious, decorative letters invite her to a place called “The Store.”
There she meets a zany salesman, played by Samuel L. Jackson in a very strange Magical Black Man stereotype. After giving her a tour of the Store, which includes an ice cream parlor, candy, confetti, and decorative bales of hay, the salesman tells Kit that this store exists solely to give her the one thing she’s always wanted: Her very own unicorn. Did I forget to mention that Kit is obsessed with unicorns?
Everyone looks fondly on their childhood obsessions. I still feel nostalgic about my Disney-themed bed sheets and Tweety Bird overalls I had at age six, but they're no longer my primary interest. Kit, however, is still obsessed with unicorns to a worrisome degree. She’s like that girl in your third grade class who never grew out of her Lisa Frank phase, and when you visit home for the holidays and spot her in the grocery store, you think, “Oof, what happened to her?”
But nothing happened to Kit. I kept waiting for Unicorn Store to reveal some type of buried childhood trauma that led her to use an unwavering belief in a fairy-tale creature as a way to cope with anxiety or depression. Kit’s parents, who are frustrated with her continuing belief in childish fantasies, make it clear that she had a perfectly happy childhood. And that makes this character’s innocence less endearing and more worrisome. She’s like an eight-year-old in a twentysomething’s body.
She’s totally oblivious, for example, to the blatant sexual harassment she endures from her boss (an awkward Hamish Linklater). He constantly talks about his desire to sleep with her, but Kit, trapped in her fantasy world of rainbows and unicorns, doesn’t notice. In one scene she admits to her new friend Virgil (Mamoudou Athiethe, the best part of the film) that she doesn’t know what her boss wants from her. “Am I pretty enough to be sexually harassed?” she asks earnestly. That’s what passes for comedy in Unicorn Store.
It’s strange to see Larson, a smart, outspoken actress and advocate for survivors of sexual assault, playing a character this wide-eyed. What did Larson, a perceptive and talented artist, find interesting about Kit, who is so guileless and poorly conceived? Larson’s performance isn’t bad, but the screenplay’s curious choices and saccharine themes sabotage her work at every turn.
Tonal missteps aside, as a first-time director Larson composes some good-looking shots. The opening slow-mo sequence of Kit covered in pastel paint and glitter show just how much she’s absorbed in her own fantasy world. Later, a choreographed dance scene with a vacuum is shot with vivacious flair. If anything, Unicorn Store left me curious to see what Larson could pull off with stronger material.
At the very least, you assume a film called Unicorn Store would have some kind of symbolic meaning around Kit’s belief in unicorns, right? Nope. As much as the film wants to send a rousing message about learning how to be an adult while holding onto your sense of wonder, it never ties the pieces together. Unicorn Store builds to a life-altering revelation for Kit – but I didn’t buy her transformation for a second. Unicorn Store has a lot of heart, but it’s as naive as its main character.