×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘I Believe in Unicorns’

Filmmaker Leah Meyerhoff makes a strong impression with her drama about a fantasy-prone teenage girl who mistakes a brooding bad boy for Prince Charming.

With:
Natalia Dyer, Peter Vack, Julia Garner, Amy Seimetz, Toni Meyerhoff.

First-time feature filmmaker Leah Meyerhoff spins a familiar but affecting coming-of-age tale in “I Believe in Unicorns,” a sensitively observed and arrestingly impressionistic drama that feels at once deeply personal and easily accessible. Although its commercial prospects are iffy, given the harsh realities of the current indie-cinema marketplace, this road-movie romance could find a receptive audience with the assist of critical recognition and empathetic marketing. A major selling point: Natalia Dyer’s delicate portrayal of a fantasy-prone teen who falls for a bad boy (Peter Vack) laden with emotional baggage.

Dyer plays Davina, a naive young beauty who often seeks refuge from the universal anxieties of adolescence and the specific demands of caring for her handicapped mom (Toni Meyerhoff) by escaping to a fairy-tale world where unicorns frolic, dragons lie in wait, and a lovely princess like herself can gracefully traverse the landscape. Prince Charming is nowhere in sight, so Davina is drawn instead to Sterling (Vack), a slightly older, punkish skateboarder who casually deflowers her in the back room of a music club, then treats her with stinging indifference the next time they meet. (Vack handily suggests inner pain, rage and confusion to explain, if not excuse, the caddishness that counterbalances Sterling’s brooding charm.)

The heartbroken girl is elated when Sterling changes his attitude yet again: He behaves tenderly, even lovingly, and invites her along for the ride when he impulsively opts to take an open-ended drive toward “anywhere but here.” The longer they’re together, however, the more Davina realizes that mood swings aren’t Sterling’s only unattractive quality.

Helmer Meyerhoff covers familiar ground in “I Believe in Unicorns,” and it is to her credit that she deftly avoids most of the cliches that are endemic to the territory. Viewers who have seen other films with similar storylines may be primed to expect the worst — or at least the most predictable — as Davina and Sterling aimlessly wander along the back roads while their finances slowly dwindle and their passion gradually wanes. There are moments here and there — during an instance of shoplifting, for example, or an argument that dangerously escalates — when the filmmaker appears ready to impose a traditional doomed-lovers-on-the-run plot on her freeform scenario. As it turns out, however, this is not that kind of movie.

Rather, “I Believe in Unicorns” represents a worthy and largely successful attempt to mine heartfelt drama from material too frequently played for manipulative melodrama. That Meyerhoff cast her own MS-afflicted mother in the small but key role of Davina’s wheelchair-bound mom is merely one indication that she’s working in an autobiographical mode. But many simpatico members of the audience — and not just impressionable young women — doubtless will see elements of their own lives in the story as well.

Meyerhoff establishes the daydream-y quality of Davina’s p.o.v. in the opening scenes, and sustains that subjective approach to reality with lenser Jarin Blaschke’s artful variations of film stock, and purposefully childlike fantasies realized through Josh Mahan’s inspired stop-motion animation.

A few details are fudged, which may prove annoying even for those otherwise willing to go with the flow. (It’s never clear just who, if anyone, is caring for Davina’s mother during the girl’s absence.) Dyer’s performance is so compelling, however, that sporadic plot holes are never more than fleeting distractions. The appealing young actress radiates a sense of wonder and an aching vulnerability as Davina, eloquently conveying the character’s desperate longing for something, anything, that will brighten her dreary life with magic.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'I Believe in Unicorns'

Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (competing), March 13, 2014. (Also in Nashville Film Festival.) Running time: 80 MIN.

Production: An Animals on Parade production. Produced by Heather Rae. Executive producers, Allison Anders, David Kupferberg, Robin Leland, Castille Landon.

Crew: Directed, written by Leah Meyerhoff. Camera (color), Jarin Blaschke; editor, Michael Taylor, Rebecca Laks; music, Sasha Gordon; production designer, Katherine Rusch; art director, Grace Sloan; costume designer, Emily Batson; sound (Dolby Digital), Joe Stillwater; lead animator, Josh Mahan; assistant director, Scott Larkin; casting, Sunday Boling, Meg Morman.

With: Natalia Dyer, Peter Vack, Julia Garner, Amy Seimetz, Toni Meyerhoff.

More Film

  • PATRICK

    Watch Trailer to San Sebastian’s ‘Patrick,’ Sold by The Match Factory (EXCLUSIVE)

    SAN SEBASTIAN —  Sales house The Match Factory is launching exclusively via Variety the trailer of “Patrick,” Gonçalo Waddington’s debut feature, as the film world premieres in the Official Selection at the San Sebastian Festival. Screening in main competition, “Patrick” recounts the story of an eight-year old Portuguese boy, Mario, who is re-discovered years later [...]

  • Brad Pitt stars in ONCE UPON

    Quentin Tarantino's 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' Gets Oct. 25 China Release

    Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is scheduled for a China release on Oct. 25, three months after its U.S. debut. The mainland opening will hit after the country’s National Day holiday in the first week of October, which this year marks a key and politically sensitive anniversary — the 70th year of [...]

  • THE-CURSE-OF-THE-HANDSOME-MAN-photo2

    Filmax Acquires International on ‘The Curse of the Handsome Man’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    SAN SEBASTIAN  —  Barcelona-based boutique studio Filmax has acquired international rights to Argentine producer-director Beda Docampo’s “The Curse of the Handsome Man,” produced by Ibón Cormenzana’s Arcadia Motion Pictures alongside Cados Producciones and Damned Besso –based in Spain—in co-production with Cecilia Díez’s Zarlek Producciones (“Medianeras”) in Argentina. The film is backed by Spanish public broadcaster [...]

  • La-mala-familia

    Javi Tasio Talks ECAM Incubator Title ‘La Mala Familia’

    SAN SEBASTIAN  —  Via their BRBR collective, filmmakers Nacho A. Villar and Luis Rojo have directed award winning music videos, and commercias. Now they’ll make the leap to features with “La Mala Familia,” a gritty urban drama set in the outskirts of Madrid. Variety spoke with the film’s producer, Javi Tasio, who developed this project at ECAM’s [...]

  • Charlie-Chaplin-and-Horse-Roy-Export-Co

    Carmen Chaplin to Direct ‘Charlie Chaplin, a Man of the World’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    SAN SEBASTIAN  — Director-producer-actress Carmen Chaplin is set to direct “Charlie Chaplin, a Man of the World,” a theatrical documentary feature which will add a hardly-explored new facet to the creator of the Tramp, one of the most iconic cinema characters in popular consciousness, plumbing Chaplin’s Romani roots and heritage. Marking the first time that [...]

  • Incitement

    'Incitement' Wins Ophir Award for Best Picture, Becomes Israel's Oscar Submission

    “Incitement” was the best-picture winner at Israel’s Ophir Awards on Sunday night, automatically becoming the country’s choice to vie for the international feature film Oscar. The winning film, a drama about the period leading up to the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish extremist in 1995, had its global premiere at [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content