by Ken Bakely
As a directorial debut, Unicorn Store introduces Brie Larson as a filmmaker with a great and precise handling on the complicated idea of how to make elements of fantasy and reality co-exist; a sliding scale of openness to whimsy by which we understand characters’ worldviews through whether they encounter a fantastical store in which they can buy their very own unicorn. It’s a light and free-wheeling story, helped greatly by Larson’s talents as director and star, but perhaps one that’s too flimsy to hold up in anything more than the abstract. Samantha McIntyre’s script plays into magical realism without ever considering how to build it beyond shorthand for a protagonist’s protests against entering the cynicism of adulthood. Said protagonist – a struggling, twenty-something artist named Kit (Larson) – whose lack of momentum in the art world means that she has to move back in with her hapless parents (Joan Cusack and Bradley Whitford) and get a desk job, is little more than a blank slate for a detached plot, stuck up against a paradox of a movie with such earnest intent and talent in front of and behind the camera that it nearly feels like a logical enigma that it could fall so flat when taken as a whole.
Unicorn Store’s scattershot storytelling means that it fails to leave a meaningful impact. It moves briskly, with scenes flying by almost too quickly to register, as threads are picked up and dropped off, resolving in seemingly random order in the last act. Even the movie’s most elaborate setpiece – the titular unicorn store, a garishly colored liminal space that materializes in an abandoned building, and is run by an eccentrically-behaved and brightly-dressed proprietor (Samuel L. Jackson) – feels as fleeting in plot utilization as its in-universe physicality. We know that Kit’s fighting for the unicorn she has been promised, but little else besides that. Her conversations with her parents on her uncertain future at least provide a bit of plot detail. At least those match the film’s light tone: another subplot, involving Gary (Hamish Linklater), Kit’s boss, falls victim to the movie’s uncertainty over whether his casually harassing behavior is genuinely off-putting or comically pathetic, and so it lends his character simultaneously too much and too little weight, ensuring a wrong-headed approach at every step.
Thankfully, such genuine missteps are otherwise few, but that doesn’t make up for the seemingly inconsequential nature of almost anything else that happens in the movie. Though individual achievements, like Larson’s tireless lead performance or Brett Pawlak’s color-drenched cinematography, keep the film from being a total writeoff, and there’s something intrinsically charming about the script’s commitment to the idea that yes, Kit’s going to get that unicorn eventually, Unicorn Store leaves the mind as soon as the credits roll. This wouldn’t be a problem if its goal was a dreamy, vignette-like depiction of its fantastical world, but it’s clear that the script has higher philosophical aspirations on its mind. It wouldn’t spend so much time contrasting Kit against the naysayers of her world, or trying to win over at least one of them (this would be Virgil (Mamoudou Athie), a perplexed friend who Kit persuades to build a stable for the unicorn) if it wasn’t trying to say something about lightening the burdens on our minds and souls for a more carefree approach to life. But there isn’t enough here to form a cohesive message. When scenes feel like they’ve been put in a near-random sequence or the characters never come off the page as something other than plot moving devices, it’s hard to see anything deeper than the momentary amusements of a silly premise, even if it’s a showcase for the stylistic promises of its director.