I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.
Preston Barta // Features Editor
Not rated, 92 minutes.
Director: Brie Larson
Cast: Brie Larson, Mamoudou Athie, Samuel L. Jackson, Bradley Whitford, Joan Cusack, Martha MacIsaac, Annaleigh Ashford, Karan Soni, Ryan Hansen and Hamish Linklater
I could watch Brie Larson speak all day. She’s super bright and has a lot of creativity itching to come out. It’s apparent in her interviews and how Larson expresses herself through the award-winning characters she portrays. In 2016, she directed her first film, UNICORN STORE, which, after a festival run in late 2017 and a long-awaited distribution deal, can finally be seen by the masses this weekend on Netflix. After watching it myself, however, I can see why it took some time to find a home. Though alive with energy, sadly, it’s a bit of a dull horn.
Larson stars as Kit, a young woman taken with a magical realm immersed in rainbows, glitter and unicorns. She radiates joy and positivity, something the outside world doesn’t seem too keen to exemplify. So, when her colorful and expressive paintings fail her out of art school, she returns home to live with her parents (Bradley Whitford and Joan Cusack) to reevaluate her life. In the face of uncertainty and pressure from her folks, Kit goes against her dreams. She slips on a business suit for a temp job at a depleting public relations firm run by creepy Vice President Gary (Hamish Linklater).
This is when she starts getting mysterious invitations at her work desk from someone known simply as The Salesman (a kooky Samuel L. Jackson). The Salesman owns the majestic store that tries to lure Kit back into her belief in unicorns again. All seems to check out, but Kit’s family and new friend-and-handyman Virgil (Mamoudou Athie of PATTI CAKE$) questions its validity. Kit’s parents even consider an intervention as Kit sets out to build a stable for the unicorn and love it with every fiber of her being.
From the get-go, this all reads silly and dumb. Some of it is. The film’s trailer didn’t fully connect with me. The idea of this being Larson’s directorial debut caught my attention, as did a few of the dramatic scenes featured toward the end of the trailer. My thoughts were maybe this is just one of those quirky indie films like SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED, where if you tried to explain it, it just comes off as too goofy. But when you watch it, you are amazed at how much depth it has and surprises you with its ambitious ideas.
UNICORN STORE is incredibly ambitious. You can feel how personal of a project it is Larson, especially considering the opening of the film features Larson’s own home videos to illustrate the wonder we all had when we were children. It’s moments like this that light the spark within. There are quite a few scenes that cause you to pull from your memory bank and reflect on the scenes of your past. No matter how many movies out there play with the concept of never letting go of your childlike sense of adventure, it’s always heartwarming to explore.
It’s just a shame that UNICORN STORE will have a moving moment and undercut it with a tedious one to break you from consuming this film’s specialness whole. Most of this is due to the badly ironed out tone. At times, the film is hitting at hard truths, such as Kit’s boss Gary, who doesn’t hold back from smelling Kit’s coconut-scented hair and making comments worthy of a Me-Too hashtag. But then we will jump over to Kit fantasizing about how she is going to care for her unicorn while Jackson’s Salesman character is riding around on a pink scooter while wearing a pink suit with Christmas Tree tinsel hanging from his hair. It’s too mature for children and too immature for adults, and it can’t find a middle ground.
You have to hand it to all the actors for fully committing to their roles. I could not imagine keeping myself from not questioning the film’s logic if I were playing a character in this film. At least Athie’s part as Virgil functions as the audience surrogate. He will pause and sarcastically say, “Well, OK,” when Kit explains how she wants a unicorn stable built in her parents’ basement. It’s as if the film is pumping the brakes to say: “Hey, look. We know this is silly, but just roll with it.” I’d be lying if I said I didn’t light up every once in a while, or felt the emotions hit as they do toward the end when Kit’s mother eloquently states: “The most grown-up thing you can do is fail at things you really care about.” That’s a “Hold up! Let me jot that down on my little marker board on my fridge” kind of scene.
UNICORN STORE has a stable of ideas that scatter like glitter. It can occasionally be a delightful and charming story of self-discovery (most moments shared between Larson and Athie prove satisfactory), but all too often it’ll lose the reins and buck wild.
UNICORN STORE releases Friday (4/5) on Netflix.