'Unicorn Store': Film Review | TIFF 2017

An earthbound fantasy with heart, by turns sweet, sharp and stuck in neutral.

Joan Cusack, Bradley Whitford and Samuel L. Jackson star with Brie Larson in her feature directing debut, a comedy that premiered in Toronto.

Fearlessly treading into potential snowflake territory and the perennial American indie theme of Being True to Yourself No Matter How Out of Step With the Mainstream You Are, Brie Larson embraces her inner sparkly child as the star and helmer of Unicorn Store. Beginning with its straight-dealing, truth-in-advertising title, this is a film that takes candy-colored metaphors seriously. But it’s also a deadpan comedy whose droll glance at conformity is heightened by the masterfully off-center contributions of Joan Cusack, Bradley Whitford, Hamish Linklater and Mamoudou Athie. 

Though the screenplay by Samantha McIntyre, whose TV credits include Married and People of Earth, ultimately conforms quite plainly to formula and grows less interesting as it proceeds, there’s a gutsiness to Larson’s headlong leap into material that walks a fine line between risky fantasy and feel-good reassurance. For the most part, she navigates the tonal shifts effectively, but while some pieces of the comic puzzle hit the mark, others — like the titular shop, overseen by a tinsel-adorned Samuel L. Jackson — strain for whimsy. Through it all, though, in Larson’s forthright performance as well as in the movie itself, there’s a percolating intelligence beneath the naïve surface. 

Larson plays Kit, a socially awkward, arts-and-craftsy innocent whose exuberant creations get her tossed out of art school, where minimalism is the inviolable creed. With ace work from production designer Matthew Luem and costume designer Mirren Gordon-Crozier, Larson uses visual schemes to terrific comic effect: Against Kit’s rainbow explosions, there’s the all-black dress code of her disdainful instructors, and then the forlorn earth tones of the parental home where she retreats in disgrace. 

Her parents, nerdy do-gooders who run a program for teens called Emotion Quest, are played by Cusack and Whitford with spot-on fretful cheer. Their gingerly yet intrusive attempts to shake Kit out of her funk are fruitless, but a TV ad does the trick with its promise of Temporary Success — existential joke and the name of the temp agency that lands Kit an office-drone gig at a PR agency. 

 

The movie puts a mildly distinctive spin on the endlessly fertile subject of the idiocy of office life. Kit’s co-workers include the requisite meanie (Annaleigh Ashford) and, less predictably, a sweetly supportive assistant (Martha Macisaac). Linklater’s leering oddball of a VP, taking an intense interest in Kit and her career advancement, ups the unreality quotient with his bizarre intensity and the lightning speed with which he promotes Kit; in no time at all she’s got her own office and has been tapped to make a presentation for the Mystic Vacuum account (sometimes this PR company seems more like an ad agency). 

Kit may give that presentation her multicolored, glitterific all, but none of this corporate creativity makes her heart sing — especially not after she’s summoned by a mysterious invitation to a place called The Store, and offered the chance to realize a childhood dream by becoming the proud owner of a single-horned mythical beast. 

Marked by a pink neon sign, devoid of merchandise and manned by Jackson’s cartoonish huckster, The Store is a warehouse space with a low-rent Lynchian vibe, occupying a zone somewhere between the id and the ego. If the execution doesn’t quite live up to the concept, that's probably because the bewigged Salesman, with his unmistakable SLJ-ness, appears liable at any moment to veer into a Capital One spiel. But Kit's visits there set in motion the suspense factor, such as it is, over the reality of the promised pet. 

To claim her unicorn — a creature who will “love you forever” — Kit has to prove herself worthy by building a proper stable for it, and enlists the help of a seemingly random hardware store employee, Virgil. Played by Athie, who lent a note of gentle mystery to Patti Cake$ and portrayed Grandmaster Flash on the recently canceled series The Get Down, Virgil is a character so offhandedly real that he makes many of the plot’s more canned twists and reversals work. Through Kit’s friendship with him, the story’s concerns with trust, leaps of faith and the importance of creative connection find their most persuasive expression. 

Larson, who first encountered McIntyre’s screenplay as an auditioning actor (she didn’t get the part; the production never got off the ground), effectively draws out the story’s comic oddities and poignant undercurrents. Brett Pawlak’s fuss-free camerawork and Alex Greenwald’s score, with its touches of melancholy carnival jangle, are in sync with the director’s straightforward approach. But as the movie proceeds, a lot of the observational satire, wonderfully precise in the early going, gets stuck in neutral, the jabs not landing. As punchlines, the kale and quinoa of Kit’s health-conscious parents are as stale as last year’s groceries. 

In Mom and Dad’s therapy-speak, though, and their expectation that a group of Emotion Quest campers will “sit in your truth,” McIntyre and Larson tap into territory that’s not only zingier but also more complex and rewarding: fiction as a way into the heart of things. As flat or unwieldy as Unicorn Store can be at times, Larson invests Kit’s love of all things bright, pastel and shiny with an affecting urgency, and ensures that her spirit animal is no gimmick.

Production companies: Rhea Films, The District, 51 Entertainment, Hive Mind
Cast: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Joan Cusack, Bradley Whitford, Mamoudou Athie, Hamish Linklater, Martha Macisaac, Karan Soni, Annaleigh Ashford
Director: Brie Larson
Screenwriter: Samantha McIntyre
Producers: David Bernad, Ruben Fleischer, Lynette Howell Taylor, Brie Larson, Paris Kasidokostas-Latsis, Terry Dougas
Executive producer: Jean-Luc De Fanti, Nathan Kelly, Samantha McIntyre, Anne Woodward
Director of photography: Brett Pawlak
Production designer: Matthew Luem
Costume designer: Mirren Gordon-Crozier
Editor: Jennifer Vecchiarello
Composer: Alex Greenwald
Casting director: Allison Jones
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations/Next Wave)
Sales: William Morris Endeavor

91 minutes

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