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Non-Review Review: Unicorn Store

Unicorn Store is, appropriately enough, a strange beast.

Brie Larson’s feature-length directorial debut, adapted from a screenplay by Samantha McIntyre, struggles to manage its tone. What is Unicorn Store? Who is the target audience for Unicorn Store? The stylistic sensibilities of Unicorn Store evoke the modern American mid-budget indie film; the listless title character stuck in arrested development, the cast populated by distinguished character actors like Joan Cusack and Bradley Whitford, the use of shaky handheld camerawork to create a sense of grounded intimacy and authenticity. However, the narrative itself aspires towards something more surreal and strange, the sort of abstract stylised magical realism associated with directors like Michel Gondry or Tim Burton.

Painting a perfect picture.

Similarly, the story itself never seems to figure out at what level it wants to pitch itself. Is Unicorn Store meant for children, with its empowering story about the importance of pursuing one’s dreams in a world that expects too much adult responsibility too quickly? If so, the narrative is too rooted in adult fears and anxieties to really land, the whimsical wonder often eroded by more mundane realities that are of little interest to a young audience. Is Unicorn Store aimed at an older audience then, people like the lead character Kit, who never grew up despite society constantly telling them that they needed to? If so, the story is too light and fluffy, too superficial and too simplistic in its outlook.

Perhaps, like the mysterious “Store” featured in the film, Unicorn Store is trying too hard to be all things to all people. Indeed, the climax of the film hinges on the idea that the eponymous “Store” cannot satisfy all of its customers. While the Unicorn Store attempts to put an optimistic spin on this, there is a sense in which this is true of the film itself. Unicorn Store seems so eager to be everything that anybody could want it to be that it never figures out what it actually is.

Making her mark.

In its own weird way, Unicorn Store taps into something that is simmering and bubbling through contemporary popular culture; the lingering fear of adulthood. This fear is reflected in a number of different ways, from the “reverse Big” of Little and the childish superheroes of Shazam!, all stories about the fantasy that it should be possible for somebody to be both an adult and child simultaneously. Of course, this anxiety is no new thing. Unicorn Store was first screened two years ago, and Kit feels very much an extension of the sorts of “arrested development” characters who frequently populate the cinema of Judd Apatow and much of contemporary comedy.

To be fair, these anxieties are relatable. Stories about the fantasy of arrested development inevitably speak to a generation coming of age who are trapped in a paradox. Millennials are frequently told to grow up and toughen up, criticised as being “entitled” and “spoiled” and overly-sensitive. They are told to get jobs and to abandon frivolous pursuits. (It is no coincidence that many of the big political shocks of recent years can be conveniently framed in generational terms.) At the same time, millennials are less likely to enjoy the financial security that their parents took for granted. Millennials are less likely to own their own home. Millennials are less likely to have a single career for the entirety of their lives. Millennials are more likely to live with their parents into adulthood.

“You know, I probably should find your wardrobe more unusual than I do, Mister Salesman. But I guess this is just how people dress.”

As such, the comforts of a perpetual and extended childhood appeal to that generation, even outside of pop culture’s increasing tendency to indulge childish sensibilities. There is quite simply no alternative being presented to this generation of young people; they have been asked to accomplish what is increasingly difficult, bordering on impossible. For many people coming of age in recent years, the stereotypical idea of “adulting” (a house, a career, a long-term relationship) is as unattainable as the Peter Pan fantasy of an eternal and extended “childhood.” However, while “adulthood” is elusive and intangible, most people at least have an experience of childhood that they might draw upon as a frame of reference.

Unicorn Store is very much an extension of these core anxieties, and there’s certainly a wealth of good material there. Kit is a young woman who is stuck in a rut, living in her parents’ basement and dreaming of being an artist, she finds herself at a crossroads. She takes an internship at a large company, where she is hit upon by a sleazy vice-president named Gary, making copies of magazine articles all day. It is dull, drab, suffocating. However, just as Kit seems on the verge of resigning herself to this most mundane of realities, an opportunity presents itself. A mysterious store operated by a mysterious “Salesman” that offers Kit something she always wanted: the opportunity to own her own unicorn.

Case in point.

There are a lot of good ideas in Unicorn Store, and a few moments that work very well. The script works best when it indulges in fantasy and absurdity, such as during an early sequence in which Kit flips through the television channels and gets a series of increasingly specific and pointed informercials that seem to be speaking directly to her. “Are you tired of feeling like a failure?” one demands. “Achieve your temporary success today!” Characters are dressed like refugees from the world of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, even during the supposedly “mundane” scenes. Alex Greenwald’s score is consciously and absurdly heightened, a series of emotional cues played at maximum volume. These elements all suggest a surreal fantasia, which makes sense given the movie’s core premise.

However, Unicorn Store seems afraid to commit to that weirdness. Larson shoots the film not like an absurdist dream or nightmare, but like a much more conventional piece of American independent film. The film is shot on handheld camera, constantly shaking and shuffling during shots. Sequences will frequently cut to mid-distance shots that serve to highlight the eccentricity of Kit’s actions in contrast to the more mundane world around her. This is a clever idea in principle, most obviously during Kit’s big climactic boardroom pitch, but it is undercut by the fact that the mundane world is just as heightened and stylised as Kit’s embrace of childish wonder. The contrast isn’t between fantasy and reality, but between two similarly absurd fantasies.

“Whats in store?”

As a result, what should be defining stylistic markers are reduced to awkward affectations. The “Store” and the “Salesman” are not magical intrusions into a mundane world, but just a different sort of weirdness in an already weird world. The dialogue feels constantly at odds with how the film is shot. At one point, Gary tells Kit, “You’re funny. Like that show Seinfeld.” Walking out of a meeting at “the Store”, Kit insists, “I’m a business lady now. I have to buy graph paper.” The “Salesman” taunts her, “Graph paper can’t love you back.” None of the characters in Unicorn Store look or sound like real people, which wouldn’t be an issue except that Unicorn Store adopts the language of grounded contemporary American indies.

Like so many of those low-to-mid-budget festival indies, this naturalistic and grounded style reduces what should be a strong heightened sensibility to little more than frustrating “quirk.” At one point, Kit’s parents warn her, “Kit, you are being intentionally weird.” The scene is framed to be sympathetic to Kit, to present her parents as insensitive and unattuned to their daughter’s needs, but the criticism rings true. There are hints of self-awareness in Unicorn Store, such as when the CEO of the company that employed Kit as a temp asks, “Does it read a little childish?” Kit replies, “Everyone needs a little magic in their life. Even adults.” It’s a solid argument, but Unicorn Store as a whole never seems to successfully contrast the magical and the mundane.

When she couldn’t afford the unicorn, she considered resorting to Larson-y.

Again, this contrast between what the movie is saying and how it is saying is reflected on a more fundamental level. A lot of Unicorn Store looks and feels like a movie aimed at younger audience members, with its broad empowerment metaphor and the childlike sensibilities of its leading character. However, the film is much too invested in abstract adult anxieties to really work for that audience. Similarly, the movie deals with themes that are recognisable to any audience member of a certain generation, but delivered with almost suffocating amount of whimsy. Unicorn Store is at once too childish for adults and too adult for kids. It is a very unfortunate position.

It is a shame. There are a few moments in Unicorn Store that work, some interesting theme, and a lot of potential. It just never materialises.

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