Unicorns are almost universally associated with girlhood. The desire for the horned creature to be real stems from the same impulse that gives us “horse girls,” sent Robot Unicorn Attack viral, and popularized Lisa Frank. That level of fantasy — those bright colors, that glitter — can only exist free of the responsibilities and monotony of adulthood. Adult women wear suits, take their lives seriously, eat kale, and long for “bikini-ready” bodies. Or so Netflix’s Unicorn Store would have you believe.
The ambition behind Brie Larson’s directorial debut is admirable. Learning to grow up while still being yourself is an endlessly repeatable lesson where movies are concerned, and it’s told less often from the perspective of young women. However, the script, written by Samantha McIntyre (and which Larson actually auditioned for — and failed to get — some years ago), is so intent on embracing the “be yourself” ethos that it exposes the limitations of its own message.
The very first scene of Unicorn Store — a montage of home videos of a precocious child melts into footage of Kit (Larson), now grown, energetically painting the wall — sets the tone for everything that follows. By the end, there’s colorful paint splotched perfectly over her face and clothes, and she finishes off her masterwork by blowing glitter onto the canvas. When she turns around, it’s revealed that she’s in the middle of an art class. Everyone else has painted within the canvas, and has dressed in dark colors in contrast to Kit’s white or rainbow-patterned clothing. Her instructor gives her a failing grade, and disapprovingly shakes his head.
It’s a quick, easy way of communicating Kit’s free spirit, but also the kind of signalling that inherently devalues the characters around her. For better or worse, Unicorn Store feels like a movie made at least a decade too late, plucked from a time before Garden State, before the “manic pixie dream girl” trope was re-evaluated, and before “geek girl vs. cheerleader” was recognized as unnecessarily pitting women against each other. When Kit finally gets a job as an office temp, her female coworkers are either mousy or mean girls, and implicitly derided for their modest ambitions.
Naturally, Kit is meant for more than office work. Multiple colorful envelopes arrive to invite her to “The Store,” where she discovers that her favorite childhood animal, the unicorn, may actually be within her reach. The mysterious Salesman (Larson’s Captain Marvel and Kong: Skull Island co-star Samuel L. Jackson) offers to sell her one — so long as she meets a certain set of conditions, including providing a negativity-free environment and a suitable stable. To have a unicorn, she has to prove that she deserves one.
Though the unicorn may be a fantastical creature, it can’t be everything the film is asking it to be. The creature stands for the promise of companionship, for embracing one’s unique voice, for never letting go of one’s inner child ... and for the compromises necessary in growing up?
In trying to flesh out the characters around Kit — her emotional support camp-running parents (Bradley Whitford and Joan Cusack), her two nice co-workers (Martha MacIsaac and Ryan Hansen) — Unicorn Store is forced to use more colors than the black and white demanded by Kit’s unassailably loud personality. These are characters who have accepted some measure of compromise in their lives, and not necessarily for the worse. To put it differently, adulthood means that no one can monitor how much candy you eat anymore — but if you eat too much, you’ll make yourself sick. The problem is that Unicorn Store is built on a foundation of “all candy, all the time.”
The best parts of the movie are either insufficiently explored (Kit’s sense that she’s a disappointment to her parents, which most of us are familiar with); tertiary (Jackson’s brightly patterned suits); or regrettably male-centric in a movie about a young woman’s coming of age (Hamish Linklater and Mamoudou Athie deliver standout performances as Kit’s creepy boss and the hapless hardware store employee roped into helping her build a stable). On top of it all, the sense that the gung-ho energy Kit projects is not necessarily tenable ends up coming true in the film’s final moments, shattering the film’s own messaging and stranding Larson as a director. There’s no room for her to do anything particularly interesting given how much energy has to be spent just holding the movie together.
Unicorn Store is a movie in which the heroine wears a “girlpower” necklace and asks if she’s pretty enough to be sexually harassed (as if that were the issue with sexual harassment). Perhaps fittingly, it’s stuck in a state of arrested development, striving to tell a story about female empowerment and artistic freedom but using outdated language that is almost incompatible with it. There’s a push and pull that never resolves when it comes to whether it’s Kit or the routine-bound people around her who need to grow up, and ultimately, the magic of Unicorn Store is purely surface-level. The bright colors, tinsel, and glitter that Kit and The Salesman wear can’t stand in for a story; this particular unicorn’s horn is a fake.