Was is it about adulthood that makes people seemingly accept growing cynical and world-weary? Who created the rules which say that doing things one way, and only that way, is the right way? That once you reach a certain age, if you haven’t checked the boxes on your scorecard, you’re a loser, a lie-about, a good-for-nothing idler? Who said that houses have to be filled with Pinterest-perfect adornments, that parents must be the epitome of responsibility, and that children are best unmuddied? At what point do we become so disaffected that magic and wonder is not only abandoned, but viewed as an aversion? Or worse, viewed as adolescent drivel? While some aspects may seem generational, the universality of the questions are not. This is perhaps why the Samantha McIntyre-written Brie Larson-directed Unicorn Store feels like a relatable tale of modern disaffection that also speaks to audiences of all ages. More importantly, Unicorn Store isn’t just about reclaiming our personal magic, but about looking beyond ourselves to see the magic of others.
Failed out of art school and back at home, Kit (Larson) has no compass, no sense of purpose. Her parents, Gene and Gladys (Bradley Whitford and Joan Cusack), are too joyful for her melancholy and none of their suggestions to get her off the couch work. At the end of her rope and seemingly out of options, Kit signs up with temp agency Temporary Success and lands at public relations firm, PR & R PR. What should be an undemanding job of making copies gets complicated when she draws the attention of awkward VP Gary (Hamish Linklater) and he starts insisting she use her creativity to help with their upcoming presentation to wow client Mystic Vacuum. As if things weren’t uncomfortable enough, Kit receives a strange invitation to a store simply named The Store, run by the illusive Salesman (Samuel L. Jackson). There’s she’s promised the object of her heart’s desire, the thing she’s wanted since she was a child: a unicorn. But it’s not as simple as financial transaction, as the Salesman sets upon her several tasks to complete to prove she’s a suitable owner. Unsure if The Store is real, but unable to handle the mundanity of her day job, she sets forth to create a loving environment for her new unicorn. But ownership has its responsibilities that require more than checking boxes, forcing Kit to look the one place she’s reluctant to inspect: inward.
While most audiences are familiar with Larson from the recent Marvel release Captain Marvel or from her Oscar-winning performance in 2015’s Room, Larson’s been in the game for just over two decades. From TV to film, she’s worked in front of and behind the camera in multiple capacities (acting, writing, directing, editing, composing, and is even featured on a few soundtracks), making her a true multi-hyphenate. What’s different about Unicorn Store is this is the first time Larson’s directing a feature-length film, yet it doesn’t feel at all like a debut. Rather, there is a confidence to the shots, the structure, and the overall tone of Unicorn which makes this quirky indie feel coherent even when it seems intentionally sophistic. Take the introduction of Kit to new her job at PR & R PR when she gets a quick walkthrough from boss Sabrina (Martha MacIsaac) who asks if Kit knows what magazines are, knows how to press a button on a copier which says “copy,” and if she can put the magazines inside the machine before she presses the button which says “copy.” Out of context, this seems like the kind of question only asked if either the person asking it is an imbecile or is used to working with imbeciles. However, in the world of Unicorn, it’s abnormal in the same way almost everything is abnormal, completing an overall sense of what the world around Kit is like. Day-to-day, Kit is normally a colorful, rainbow and glitter-covered individual whose version of an adult full-time job involves notepads, highlighters, graph paper, and bland clothes. In short, to her, it’s an absence of inspiration. Therefore, the questions from Sabrina are just another way to confirm for Kit that the world around her is basic and unimaginative. This is, of course, accentuated by an office environment largely devoid of vibrant colors. In fact, anyone who’s ever worked in an office environment will recognize the soul-killing vibe that frequents the most “adult” of professions. In contrast to PR & R’s drab look, The Store is dazzling. As Kit journeys from the doorway to the central room, it changes from one color to another as though she’s walking through a rainbow. Then she meets the Salesman, dressed in stylish colored suits, glasses to match, and tinsel in his hair. The Store represents everything she imagines life should be− colorful, whimsical, a place where anything is possible − whereas PR & R represents everything she imagines adulthood is.
This aspect – Kit’s perception of the world – is the key element which makes McIntrye’s script appealing and from which the rest of pieces of the film hang. Alex Greenwald’s music, for instance, sounds like something from a music box: light, whimsical, and with just a hint of magic. This is particularly important in the quieter moments of Unicorn because whimsy is Kit’s default, something which she feels no one understands which leaves her feeling isolated and alone. This music, whether she’s in The Store, at PR & R, at home, or out in the world, is almost a security blanket, enveloping the audience up with Kit, trying to keep a little magic in our lives. Similarly, Brett Pawlak’s cinematography is less consistent across the whole of the film, opting instead to match the tone of the environment. The Store is vibrant, work is drab, and home is a grounded mix. The third, and most prevalent story location, Kit’s home’s look actually changes based on which room she’s in, as well as what point Kit is in on her emotional journey. With her room turned in a home gym, she takes up in the basement, which she makes over off-screen to befit her imagination. The rest of the house, however, blends her animated spirit with what she sees as the bland side of her parents’ personality (i.e. fully formed adulthood). Pawlak ensures that the home is inviting and warm, yet not over-flowing with personality. This is key since that’s how Kit views her parents. However, as the story unfolds and Kit confronts the parts of herself which she didn’t realize were in her way, it’s as though a lens is lifted and the world before her changes.
On the surface, Unicorn Store is a charming film, which may not amount to more than a cinematic confection. For those audience members who see it that way, that’s fine. Brie’s delightful as Kit, Whitford and Cusack are fun to watch as her seemingly awkward, over-enthusiastic parents, and Jackson elevates what could be a trope-filled role as the magical Salesman into something befitting the effulgent statesman. However, for audiences willing to peer underneath the sunshine and sparkles, McIntyre offers a chance to think about the choices we make and how the end result is not an “either or” if we so choose. As a thematic choice, it comes across far more original than other films of the “self-empowerment” variety which often end with a character electing their personal preference over what makes them grow. As her invitation states, The Store sells what Kit needs. Sometimes what we need is not the thing we want. That’s what makes Unicorn Store more than rainbow contrivance. It makes it something thoughtful and meditative. It instills a notion that we shape our world and we can shape it however we need.
Available for streaming beginning April 5th, 2019 via Netflix.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.