Without much explanation, Unicorn Store immediately sets up our protagonist as an earnest artist outcast, existing as sincerely as possible in a world that doesn't understand her love of bright colors, glitter, and children's print shirts. Kit (Brie Larson) is an art school dropout (maybe? It's not explained clearly) who moves back home after receiving a failing grade on her art final. Over the course of the movie, Kit is tested by corporate workplace culture, misunderstanding parents, and last but not least, the enigmatic Salesman who offers to sell her what she needs.
What she needs, in this case, happens to be a unicorn.
Unicorns (as everyone knows) need to be loved. They also need pink hay, a suitable place to live, and owners with responsible finances. Everyone, says the Salesman (played by Samuel L. Jackson) knows this. Unicorns will also love you forever and be your best friend. To Kit, the idea that someone will love all of her - the weird, strange, glitter-speckled and awkward foot-in-mouth mishaps - is just what she wants. Unicorns (despite the very real unicorn that shows up at the end of the film) are actually a metaphor for happiness. The dialogue in Unicorn Store is not subtle about this.
This movie was a bright pink and turquoise descent into sincere expressions of often-dismissed and belittled femininity. Throughout the film, the surrealness of watching someone raised by Lisa Frank, Rainbow Brite, and the Care Bears earnestly engage with their childhood obsessions contrasted directly to the sincere literalism of the struggles of dealing with a misunderstanding family and a boring corporate job... It was refreshing and sincere, but it often felt like too much. It felt as if Kit was a teenager, not someone in her mid-twenties just out of art school. The film’s sense of whimsy bordered on immaturity in a way that could have been avoided with a few tweaks to its presentation.
Brie Larson did a lot of work embodying the aspects of a woman who still loves things that made her happy fifteen years ago. It was well-preserved, but perhaps a little too cutesy: the artful paint that appeared on Kit’s face every time she picked up a brush, the Tinker bell-like blowing of glitter, and even the meta in-movie explanation when an executive asks, “Isn't this all a little childish?” To which Kit reminds her that even grownups need magic.
For a movie preoccupied with glitter, magic, unicorns, and rainbows, Unicorn Store is also surprisingly obsessed with heterosexuality. Kit, her mother, and various characters continue to mention that Kit either, “doesn’t have a boyfriend,” “doesn’t want a boyfriend,” or “can’t get a boyfriend,” in some form or another at least once every fifteen minutes. This movie didn’t need a love story, and this plot was so secondary, that it didn’t even appear until about an hour into this ninety-two minute film. But every character was so focused on establishing that Kit was a Heterosexual Woman who would be with a man if only she could find one who could love her with all her quirkiness that it became infuriating. Why even mention it? Why should we care about her lack of a love life? She’s trying to get a unicorn, isn’t that much more interesting?
The constant mention of Kit’s lack of a relationship was actually overwhelming. It made no sense why they would keep bringing up relationship status as a measure of value or merit when Kit seemed so determined to reject traditional value systems. That should have been the biggest hint; this movie isn’t actually about breaking out of the box, but adjusting yourself to fit into the box you’ve been given.
Unicorn Store was cute, but it was too self-aware to be genuinely fun. Larson’s comedic timing wasn’t great either, and the script that could have done with a few more rounds of punch-up, also suffered from a director who didn’t have much to offer in the way of comedy. The deadpan comedy was in the vein of Safety Not Guaranteed, Be Kind Rewind and Lars and the Real Girl, but it would have more likely been better if it had been released before 2015.
When Kit eventually starts working for a PR firm, there are a series of awkward interactions where the Vice President walks the line between being socially awkward, and a sexual harasser. This is never addressed within the story, and honestly, it feels really out of place with the way that people are presented to revolve around Kit and her decisions. If that had been edited to just be a strange and awkward back and forth it would have been much easier to watch. Again, the comedy here fell flat.
This is another problem: this script spent so long in development that when the story was finally translated to screen it lost some of its timeliness. Unicorn Store was written circa 2010-2012, attaching Larson as director in 2014 or so, was filmed in 2016, and finally premiered at the Toronto film festival in 2017 (not to mention that after completion, the film wasn’t picked up for distribution until 2019). Revisions were made throughout development, but problems remain. The comedy doesn’t stick, the earnestness feels five years behind the curve and any feminist moments feel like they happen on accident rather than by design. It doesn’t feel as immediate as it should, and any statement that the movie tries to make has already been said three years ago.
The overarching theme of this movie can be distilled down to a pithy catchphrase like, “be yourself and the world will follow,” “never give up,” or even “keep going.” In fact, “Keep Going Kit” can be seen on the bus driving past the Store in the final scene. The irony of this is that within Kit’s desire to be herself, she actually strives to be someone that everyone accepts and loves. She tries to get the unicorn (a weak metaphor for happiness) by finding a steady job, a steady boyfriend, and the love and respect of her family. But Kit doesn’t think about what will actually make her happy and instead, the Salesman guides her along to a traditional, essentialist view of what happiness is: like everyone knows, for a woman, happiness is money, a man, and a family.
Kit isn’t a radical, she isn’t new or fantastic or a darling for the new generation, she’s just like everyone else. Despite whatever the film might want you to think, Kit’s love of sparkles and unicorns doesn’t make her special and as a viewer, it’s hard to reconcile the desire for a subversive main character with the fact that her desires line up with what society expects from young women.
Unicorn Store walks a strange line between a main character who is whimsical and cynical, but also deeply sincere, riding along a plot that is driven by the fact that there is an unwavering belief that a unicorn is absolutely on its way to Kit. The earnestness of art for art’s sake, the desire to communicate power through self expression, and the absolute sweetness with which Larson delivers her lines makes Unicorn Store enjoyable, even if it isn’t incredible. It is a story about a manic pixie dream girl falling in love with herself and becoming okay with who she is, and accepting that sometimes people won’t know what to do with her. At the same time that it does this, the “be yourself” moral of the story is lost within the overwhelming pressure for Kit to conform to what society wants. She herself doesn’t even seem to care about anything else other than what others think of her (despite her eclectic wardrobe). Her stance on being who you are is washed out by the irony of how totally enmeshed she is in upholding the establishment that made her feel like she wasn’t good enough in the first place. Through her defense of her art professor, her desire for a promotion, and even the way that she views success and failure, it’s obvious that Kit is just a product of the same machine that she thinks she’s rejecting within her feminine whimsy.
Brie Larson’s directorial debut might be a rejection of the serious roles she’s taken over the past decade, but it unfortunately does not showcase her talent. Unicorn Store ends up stuck in an earnest miasma of glitter and soft character building that lets the plot disappear into the background. Larson’s Kit is sweet, but not nearly as funny as she could be, and she is far too obsessed with fitting into a box that someone else has already made for her.
Linda H. Codega
Linda is a twenty-something millennial living and working in the Hudson Valley who loves fandom, pop culture, sailing, tarot cards, and crying in movie theaters. If you want to listen to them talk about pop culture, the repeating cycles of media, and those stories that we can’t get out of our heads, you can listen to their podcast, Retronym, on iTunes.