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.