In an early scene in Unicorn Store, twentysomething Kit (Brie Larson), back at her parents’ house after flunking out of art school, spends an entire day flipping through channels, watching as a vibrantly colorful unicorn cartoon fades into the greyish tones of an infomercial about how to become an adult.
It’s one of the most down-to-earth moments in a movie filled with whimsy, an effective parable for the millennial experience. We’ve all been on that couch at some point, wondering what dreams we may have to give up to grow up.
Brie Larson’s feature directorial debut, from a script by Samantha McIntyre, unfolds on two levels. On the surface, it’s a modern fairy tale about a woman seeking to acquire an actual unicorn, after receiving an offer from The Salesman (Samuel L. Jackson in a wonderful pink suit and Beyoncé -inspired tinsel hair), owner of The Store, a place filled with hay, ice cream, and other delightfully twee items. But to paraphrase Boromir, “one does not simply” get a unicorn. You have to earn it by proving worthy of such a rare creature, and that means establishing order in every aspect of your life, whether it’s family, friends, love, or work.
That same “unicorn” also serves as metaphor for all the seemingly unachievable aspects of a full and complete personhood. The lovely thing about Larson’s approach is that most of the film exists in that in-between place straddling fantasy and reality, which means you’re never really sure if Kit should be seeking help for her delusions, or if you as a viewer are too cynical to believe in nice things.
In the tradition of Napoleon Dynamite, the characters are mostly deadpan weirdos and misfits. This can be hit-or-miss, but mostly works here. Joan Cusack and Bradley Whiftord are cringe-inducingly funny as Kit’s kale-and-quinoa-loving life coach parents, and Mahmadou Athie charms as Virgil, a hardware store employee who befriends Kit on her quest. Still, in some cases, that kind of apathetic detachment makes it difficult to connect with people we should be able to empathize with, or at the very least care about.
Fans of Jackson and Larson’s dynamic in Captain Marvel will definitely enjoy their first meeting here, which ramps up their undeniable friendship chemistry. Jackson goes full Willy Wonka, and Kit is a quirky vehicle for Larson, who strikes the right balance between a woman who has literal glitter stuck between her toes, and a regular person just trying to figure shit out. But her director’s touch is really what gives the film its distinct cotton-candy explosion flavor, successfully tempered with details that anchor it in lived experience.
One detail I particularly love is when Kit leaves for her first day at a PR office job awkwardly wearing her mother’s old ill-fitting calf-length skirt-suit — a millennial college grad in business drag. tWhen Kit watches TV in the scene mentioned earlier, her snacks shift from leftover toast crusts (morning), to diet Coke and Pop Tarts (lunch time) , to Cheez-Its (afternoon). By the time her parents return with Kevin-from-down-the-street-remember-him (Karan Soni), the coffee table is strewn with bowls of cereal, mac & cheese, pistachio husks, and a half-finished bag of chips. Too real.
But while those moments feel universal, Unicorn Store’s most powerful moments speak specifically to the experience of young women. Take Gary (Hamish Linklater), Kit’s boss who is constantly making inappropriate physical contact and sexual innuendos, or her male art teacher who flunks her for painting outside the prescribed lines. The film successfully makes a point about a woman searching for her value in a world that tells her she can do anything, but keeps shutting doors in her face.
In fact, the conversation around the film’s April 5 Netflix release has been an ironic reflection of this insidious messaging. Recently, the streaming giant came to Larson’s defense on Twitter when someone suggested that she was "just riding Captain Marvel’s wave", and that she should model herself on fellow-first time director Jonah Hill, "who was mentored by Martin Scorsese and took years before he made his directorial debut out of respect for the artistry of film and the position of director."
Putting aside the debate around whether this corporation was simply protecting its investment rather than taking a stand on sexism, this kind of backlash proves that for many women, respect and equality remain elusive unicorns — creatures we’re certainly worthy of.