Brie Larson’s feature-length directorial debut has been long anticipated. First premiering at Toronto International Film Festival in September 2017, Netflix only picked up the distribution rights to Unicorn Store in January 2019. The film follows Kit (Larson), a failed artist who moves back in with her parents (Joan Cusack and Bradley Whitford), and gets a job at a temp agency after feeling like a disappointment. Kit starts receiving mysterious letters from The Salesman (Samuel L. Jackson), inviting her to The Store which sells “what you need“. He offers Kit the chance to fulfill her childhood dream of owning a real unicorn.
Unicorn Store, written by newcomer Samantha McIntyre, offers an original and bizarre script which likely wouldn’t have been made without the interest from Larson. It’s a realistic portrayal of a struggling young adult mixed in with elements of pure fantasy. This combination doesn’t always work, but it makes for a fun and quirky watch. Unlikely to resonate with older people, the film speaks mostly to millennials who feel lost during their transition from college student to fully functioning adult.
After failing art school, we see Kit laying on the couch, watching television all day and feeling sorry for herself. She catches advertisements that highlight exactly how she feels: “You don’t want to be a great disappointment, do you?” the advert teases. This is an all too familiar feeling for many, which inspires Kit to get a mundane office job. Sadly, she packs away any remains of her exuberant personality, including her teddy bears (who she asks “You guys still like me, right?“) and her colorful, eccentric clothing.
Kit’s personality usually oozes out of her, but the following morning she appears in front of her camp counselor parents wearing a grey suit. She announces that she’ll be having “Grapefruit, flax-seeds and coffee” for breakfast. It’s satirical of real life and when her dad reveals that she doesn’t like coffee, she says: “That was old Kit and she didn’t try hard enough to like things that are disgusting.” This is a fun but sad piece of dialogue as it offers insight into how people view adulthood. Doing things you don’t like is often said to be part of life, but for those who feel like they cannot possibly cope in a dull, dead-end job, it can feel disheartening. Maybe you’re just not trying hard enough to like it?
Even at her temp job, Kit can’t fully suppress her inner child when she starts photocopying her hand into black and white scans, instead of the pastel colors she’s used to. When her boss asks what her long-term goals are, she replies: “Uh, I would like to not be a great disappointment,” echoing what the television told her. Before she has time to really grow up, she receives a mysterious letter from The Salesman.
Jackson is great in his role as the enigmatic salesman. When we first see him, he’s wearing a bright pink suit with glasses to match – definitely attire that Kit would approve of. He seems like the prefect balance of childish and mature, as he owns a business but still declares his love for ice cream. He’s everything that appeals to Kit. In an interview with USA Today, Jackson revealed that he “kind of begged [Larson] to be in the movie” and he definitely delivers.
In order to get a unicorn, Kit has to prove she’s ready by completing three tasks. The Salesman tells her she needs to make a home, offer unconditional love and also provide a positive living environment (which includes patching things up with her parents). Even though these are the prerequisites for owning a unicorn, they also serve as Kit’s transition into adulthood as she learns about having real responsibilities and working towards a goal.
The film doesn’t feel the need to always be on Kit’s side as she goes on her character journey. This is seen through her interactions with her parents and Virgil (Mamoudou Athie), her love interest, who she hires to build her unicorn’s stable. Either unwilling or unable to grow up, Kit often doesn’t appreciate her parents and treats them akin to a how a moody teenager would. At one point, she says “I don’t know how to be a grownup,” and this is partly because she still sees herself a disappointment in their eyes.
Virgil can also see that Kit tends to be living inside her own bubble most of the time, which fits perfectly with the coming-of-age themes that Unicorn Store explores. It sucks when you can’t do something you really want to do, and in Kit’s case it was being an artist and living life outside of the box. Confined to her office job, she is still determined to work hard in order to get her unicorn; a magical creature who will love her forever.
The script is a mixture of strong and weak moments, but still remains entertaining throughout. The cast is one of the film’s main attractions and it’s unlikely Unicorn Store would’ve worked so well without them and Larson’s vision as a director. They all deserved better material to work with, but they each excel with what they’ve been given. Larson especially brings Kit’s colorful and demanding personality to life, whilst Cusack and Whitford are absolute treasures. Athie is also another highlight with his character’s more muted personality balancing out Kit’s.
Unicorn Store has a lot of heart and many important messages, which work well if you don’t over-think them. The most striking lesson is delivered by Kit’s mum who tells her: “The most grownup thing you can do is fail at things you really care about,” which is an extremely comforting takeaway. It’s reassuring to know that being yourself isn’t something you have to give up in order to be an adult: it’s just about finding balance and not being afraid to fail and try again, which is exactly what Kit realizes at the end.
Unicorn Store is currently available to stream on Netflix.