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Toronto Film Review: ‘Unicorn Store’

It may sound twee (and it is), but Brie Larson's directorial debut calls for a tricky tonal balancing act that results in a creative misfire.

Director:
Brie Larson
With:

Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Joan Cusack, Bradley Whitford, Mamoudou Athie, Hamish Linklater, Martha MacIsaac, Karan Soni, Annaleigh Ashford.

Recent years have seen blockbusters made about pirates and wizards and zombies and superheroes, but you have to go all the way back to Ridley Scott’s “Legend” (1985), or else Rankin/Bass’ animated “The Last Unicorn” (1982), to find a proper movie made about unicorns. It’s a colossal oversight on Hollywood’s part: For all the girls (and boys) who grew up dreaming about those fabled beasts, there exists a unicorn-shaped hole in the cinematic universe today, and it’s long been my belief that the first filmmaker to come along and fill it was going to become very, very rich.

Brie Larson’s “Unicorn Store” is not that movie. Yes, it’s about unicorns, but only obliquely. Mostly, it’s about a unicorn-obsessed young art student named Kit (Larson) who needs some sort of life lesson (although what it was exactly remains maddeningly unclear at the end). In order for this pixie-dusted contemporary fable to make its point, the movie erects a magical pop-up shop just for Kit, complete with world’s most flamboyant salesman (Samuel L. Jackson, wearing tablecloth-print suits and tinsel in his afro, à la Beyoncé), where Kit can arrange to adopt her very own unicorn.

What if Kit’s childhood wish came true? Would it be the best thing that ever happened? Or in some cases, is giving a girl a pony the worst possible present? Perhaps there’s some wisdom to that, but wouldn’t it be great to find out?

“Unicorn Store” spends so much time focused on Kit’s mostly-average, mostly-boring pre-unicorn life that it’s hard to understand what the universe (or the movie, at least) is trying to teach her — something about not being selfish, or the importance of not throwing bratty tantrums in your 20s, or (and this is a direct quotation, albeit one whose meaning is muddled) “we’re all looking for happiness and maybe if we’re lucky we can just buy it in a store.”

A child actress who broke out with the 2013 indie “Short Term 12,” Larson is an immensely loveable star who, two years later in the movie “Room,” demonstrated how effortlessly she manages to bridge the empathy gap between tricky characters and skeptical audiences. Who wouldn’t want to watch Larson get the spirit animal she’s always wanted? It’s just that there’s a serious mismatch between the personality of Samantha McIntyre’s script (which seems to be written as a kooky, do-it-yourself comedy, à la “Being John Malkovich” or “Napoleon Dynamite”) and Larson’s directing style, which feels entirely incompatible with whimsy.

Her character loves glue guns, glitter and improvised crafts, and the movie ought to feel as charming and eccentric as Kit’s own artwork, playfully introduced in home videos that convincingly suggest that Larson herself grew up putting all her energy into watching “Rainbow Brite” and doodling unicorns. But now that she’s entering the adult world, is the movie rewarding her for having held on to her childish sensibility, or is it suggesting that she really needs to grow up?

Frankly, it’s hard to decipher the movie’s agenda: When Kit’s art-school professors flunk her for painting yet another unicorn as her final project, are they the ones who need to think outside of their fuddy-duddy ways, or is it a meant as a loud-and-clear early warning that Kit is blocked and needs to move past her fixation with magical lone-horned horses? One thing is clear: Kit should really learn to paint without making such a rainbow-colored mess on her own face. That detail, like nearly all of Larson’s artistic choices, isn’t half as cute as she seems to think.

Back home with her camp-counselor parents (Bradley Whitford and Joan Cusack, who talks to everyone as if he or she were four years old), Kit tries to get a grown-up job, working as a temp in an advertising firm. It’s a generically boring temp gig, and yet, watching her suffer through it — she sarcastically tells her parents, “Old Kit didn’t try hard enough to like things that are disgusting” — it’s hard not to interpret this movie as being openly hostile to the 99% of audiences who do something other than paint rainbows for a living. As dads across America have been saying for decades: They call it “work” for a reason. If it was supposed to be fun, they wouldn’t need a separate word.

After receiving a series of bedazzled letters personally addressed to her, Kit follows the instructions printed therein. Cautiously wandering through a dodgy-looking doorway, down (or is it up?) a creepy elevator and into what looks like some kind of converted church, Kit meets the Salesman, who gives her the “Needful Things” routine. Naturally, there are a few conditions before Kit can take possession of her unicorn.

It would be a lot more fun if he just gave her the spiky pony with an ominous afterthought-warning, à la “Gremlins,” but instead, Kit spends the rest of the movie trying to get her life in order — which means rejecting the old classmate her parents are trying to fix her up with (Karan Soni) and figuring out how to deserve the hardware store clerk who helps her out (Mamoudou Athie, a pleasantly unconventional romantic interest, if only because the charismatic up-and-comer seems to be playing her gay best friend).

“Unicorn Store” is the first film produced by 51 Entertainment, an initiative to enable female-made features, so it’s fitting that the premise gives Larson license to make world’s girliest movie — something so cotton-candy sweet that audiences need insulin shots on the way out of the cinema. Instead, the storytelling here has all the personality of a strip-mall income-tax office. While the world most definitely needs more female filmmakers — far more urgently than it needs unicorn movies, to be honest — that doesn’t mean Larson is quite ready for such tonally challenging material as McIntyre’s. I’m pretty sure what “Unicorn Store” needed was Michel Gondry.

Toronto Film Review: 'Unicorn Store'

Reviewed at WME screening room, Los Angeles, Sept. 5, 2017. (In Toronto Film Festival — Special Presentation.) Running time:

Production: A Rhea Films, the District, 51 Entertainment, Hive Mind Prods. production. (International sales: William Morris Endeavor Entertainment, Los Angeles.) Producers: David Bernad, Ruben Fleischer, Lynette Howell Taylor, Brie Larson, Paris Kasidokostas-Latsis, Terry Douglas. Executive producers: Jean-Luc De Fanti, Nathan Kelly, Samantha McIntyre, Anne Woodward.

Crew: Director: Brie Larson. Screenplay: Samantha McIntyre. Camera (color): Brett Pawlak. Editor: Jennifer Vecchiarello. Music: Alex Greenwald.

With:

Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Joan Cusack, Bradley Whitford, Mamoudou Athie, Hamish Linklater, Martha MacIsaac, Karan Soni, Annaleigh Ashford.

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