After appearing at several film festivals as far back as 2017, Brie Larson’s directorial feature film debut went into purgatory with no sign of release. Fast forward to 2019 and Netflix decided to capitalise on the publicity generated by Larson starring in the huge box office smash Captain Marvel, by acquiring Unicorn Store and releasing it within a month of the MCU blockbuster. Written by Samantha McIntyre, Unicorn Store tells the story of lonely artist Kit who flunks out of college and gets a temp job in a boring office. Whilst at work, she receives a mysterious invitation to “The Store,” where she is greeted by The Salesman (Samuel L. Jackson) who tells her that she will be receiving a unicorn if she proves herself worthy. She is set various tasks to prepare her parent’s house for the incoming “pet” and she enlists hardware store clerk Virgil (Mamoudou Athie) to help her build an appropriate habitat.
My last two reviews for JUMPCUT have been for Rafiki (directed by Wanuri Kahiu) and Fast Color (directed by Julia Hart), which, like Unicorn Store, were directed by women. However, they also have something else in common: COLOUR. All three of these films are bursting with vibrancy and use colour in unusual ways. Unicorn Store opens with Kit producing art in college which is so colourful and glittery, it is sneered at and looked down upon as being silly and not serious enough. This is clearly a commentary on how women’s interests, particularly those of young women, teenagers and girls are dismissed as frivolous. When Kit tries to tell her family and friends about the unicorn and is met with disbelief and concern for her mental state, many women will relate to this feeling of not being taken seriously.
The use of colour continues through the costuming and other design. The store itself is a vast space that looks like it came from the mind of Terry Gilliam. When Kit first meets The Salesman, he is wearing a bubblegum pink suit and has silver streamers in his hair. There is a salon laid in waiting for the unicorns which is decorated with rainbow ribbons and Kit makes a presentation to her office wearing a suit basically made of multicoloured streamers. When Kit tries to dress in appropriate office attire for her job, she looks like a child trying on their parents’ clothes. Kit being surrounded by the trappings of her childhood – Care Bears, her drawings and paintings, fairy lights and of course, glitter saturates the whole film in warmth and nostalgia. No wonder Kit doesn’t want to grow up and move on.
Kit’s parents are played by the perfectly-cast and fabulous Bradley Whitford and Joan Cusack, who run an organisation called Emotion Quest, where they lead camps and other activities for teenagers. They are well meaning and loving, but of course Kit thinks they’re the worst, mainly because she didn’t have a pet as a kid. It’s testament to both McIntyre’s writing and Larson’s performance that Kit doesn’t come off as a spoiled white middle-class kid. Larson also keeps Kits’ naivete on the right side of annoying – she has a genuine wide-eyed innocence and completely matter-of-fact approach to the reality of her situation. The matter-of-fact approach to fantastical and ludicrous situations is reminiscent of the tone of Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You. Larson and Jackson have a fantastic chemistry, which has been exploited in both this and Captain Marvel now. Mamoudou Athie as Virgil is a revelation – the supportive, non-judgmental man of our dreams.
There are plenty of emotional moments brought about by Kit’s loneliness and longing for something that “will love her forever.” A unicorn had been Kit’s imaginary childhood friend and she has a fear that she will be a lonely adult and that people won’t understand her. There are themes of proving one’s worth and not being a disappointment. There is definitely a theme of arrested development – adults living with their parents, not feeling grown up enough – which will resonate with many. Kit’s journey is heart-warming, fulfilling and many women in particular will be able to relate to her. Unicorn Store is well written, well acted, well designed and an impressive directorial debut from Larson – her next work should be much anticipated now.