Somewhere in the midst of the lackluster Unicorn Store, there’s an interesting movie. It could be a story about following your artistic vision. It could be a story about the difficulty of growing up, especially right out of college. It could be a story about wanting acceptance for your interests. Sadly, director Brie Larson has trouble following any of these threads or in nailing down the tone of Samantha McIntyre’s screenplay. Rather than fully embrace the story’s whimsy or juxtapose it with a deadpan observation, Larson tries to walk between the two only to have the movie fall into the abyss.
Kit (Larson) is an enthusiastic art student whose love of bright colors and unicorns just got her flunked out of art school. Living at home with her parents (Bradley Whitford and Joan Cusack), Kit tries to make a responsible decision by getting a temp job at a PR firm, where she quickly catches the eye of the company’s weird VP Gary (Hamish Linklater). However, Kit’s attention is drawn to a mysterious letter she receives informing her that a new store has what she’s always wanted. When she goes there, The Salesman (Samuel L. Jackson) informs her that a real-life unicorn is on its way, but Kit must first prove she’s able to love and care for the mythical creature.
From a character perspective, Kit is a nice change of pace for Larson. Although she’s no stranger to comedic roles, her recent acclaim has come for heavier material like Short Term 12 and Room while she tries to make the most of supporting parts in fun movies like Kong: Skull Island and Free Fire. But getting to take center stage in a goofy, lighthearted role like Kit serves Larson well as she leans into the character’s exuberance and arrested development. She’s also got a solid supporting cast backing her up with everyone looking like they’re having a good time (Linklater in particular has a scene where a smile slowly falls from his face that’s just hilarious).
Unfortunately, the rest of the film lacks Larson’s acting bravado. She seems unsure of how far she wants to take the premise, and instead falls in between two approaches that could have worked separately, but not together. There will be scenes where Larson is leaning completely into the whimsical aspects, and yet it feels like she could have gone further with the camerawork, music, and production design. The deadpan moments are occasionally funny, but they undermine a movie where the 22-year-old protagonist genuinely wants a real, live unicorn.
Because it lacks a clear direction, the movie just doesn’t work. The scenes fall flat, the character relationships feel perfunctory, and the decisions seem half-hearted. In trying to split the difference between two tones, Unicorn Store feels like a half a movie. Worse still, the film comes off as falling short on a modest goal rather than taking a big, ambitious swing.
Larson is one of the best actresses working today, and anytime she’s in the movie, it demands to be seen. However, as a director, it looks like she’s still finding her way, which is fine. She’s only 27, this is her first feature, and although she has an instinct for character, she still has some work to do when it comes to the overall film. While TIFF was certainly a big stage for her directorial debut and a bit of a risk, I hope Larson continues to takes those risks.
Unicorn Store does not currently have a U.S. release date.