×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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 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 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.

More Film

  • Atlantics

    Netflix Snags Worldwide Rights to Cannes Winners 'Atlantics,' 'I Lost My Body'

    Mati Diop’s feature directorial debut “Atlantics” and Jérémy Clapin’s animated favorite “I Lost My Body” have both been acquired by Netflix following wins at Cannes Film Festival. “Atlantics” was awarded the grand prix while “I Lost My Body” was voted the best film at the independent International Critics Week. The deals are for worldwide rights [...]

  • Stan Lee, left, and Keya Morgan

    Stan Lee's Former Business Manager Arrested on Elder Abuse Charges

    Stan Lee’s former business manager, Keya Morgan, was arrested in Arizona Saturday morning on an outstanding warrant from the Los Angeles Police Department. The LAPD’s Mike Lopez confirmed that the arrest warrant was for the following charges: one count of false imprisonment – elder adult; three counts of grand theft from elder or dependent adult, [...]

  • Moby attends the LA premiere of

    Moby Apologizes to Natalie Portman Over Book Controversy

    Moby has issued an apology of sorts after writing in his recently published memoir “Then It Fell Apart” that he dated Natalie Portman when she was 20 — a claim the actress refuted. “As some time has passed I’ve realized that many of the criticisms leveled at me regarding my inclusion of Natalie in Then [...]

  • Bong Joon-ho reacts after winning the

    Bong Joon-ho's 'Parasite' Wins the Palme d'Or at Cannes

    CANNES — The 72nd edition of the Cannes Film Festival wrapped with jury president Alejandro González Iñárritu announcing the group’s unanimous decision to award the Palme d’Or to South Korean director Bong Joon-ho for his sly, politically charged “Parasite.” Following last year’s win for humanistic Japanese drama “Shoplifters,” the well-reviewed Asian thriller represents the yin [...]

  • Invisible Life Brazilian Cinema

    Cannes Film Review: 'The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão'

    A “tropical melodrama” is how the marketing materials bill “The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão.” If that sounds about the most high-camp subgenre ever devised, Karim Aïnouz’s ravishing period saga lives up to the description — high emotion articulated with utmost sincerity and heady stylistic excess, all in the perspiring environs of midcentury Rio de [...]

  • Best Movies of Cannes 2019

    The 10 Best Movies of Cannes 2019

    The Cannes Film Festival is too rich an event to truly have an “off” year, but by the end of the 72nd edition, it was more or less universally acknowledged that the festival had regained a full-on, holy-moutaintop-of-art luster that was a bit lacking the year before. It helps, of course, to have headline-making movies [...]

  • Aladdin

    'Aladdin' Soaring to $100 Million-Plus Memorial Day Weekend Debut

    Disney’s live-action “Aladdin” remake is on its way to a commendable Memorial Day weekend debut with an estimated $109 million over the four-day period. The musical fantasy starring Will Smith and Mena Massoud should uncover about $87 million in its first three days from 4,476 North American theaters after taking in $31 million on Friday. [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content