Coming-of-age tales about lost dreamers may be well-trodden ground but Brie Larson's directorial debut Unicorn Store has something that the rest do not: A reunion with fellow alumnus Samuel L. Jackson.
With Captain Marvel soaring in cinemas worldwide, fans of the duo may be tempted to dip in to this by-the-book tale. Unicorn Store had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival way back in 2017 but is about to gather a wider audience come its distribution on Netflix this Friday.
And fans won't be disappointed. Unicorn Store proves that Larson and Jackson should be a buddy duo in at least 20 more films, unicorn-related or not.
Kit, played by Larson, is a 20-something art student who fails her degree by literally coloring outside the lines. She ends up back on her parents' couch, chugging Coke and watching infomercials until dark. We learn from a trip down VHS recorder memory lane that Kit was a fairy child who grew up painting rainbows. Despite her subsequent hard times, glitter is still encrusted on the soles of present-day Kit's feet.
She's stuck until a mysterious letter leads her to The Store, a hall filled with odd trinkets, an ice cream parlor and hay -- for a unicorn of course. There Kit can nab one of those mythical creatures for her own, if she proves herself worthy.
Unicorn Store isn't full-on fantasy -- The Store that Kit dips in and out of may or may not be real. This creates a level of intrigue, similar to other charming indie films such as Safety Not Guaranteed.
Larson's done off-beat comedy before (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, 21 Jump Street), but this is a chance for her to show off her chops as a cutesy, temper tantrum-deploying yet dry-humored oddball. And she's great at it.
Just as great is Jackson's Mr.-Magorium-meets-Willy-Wonka figure in his pink suit, with his beehive hair decorated like a Christmas tree. Known only as The Salesman, he gives Kit the quest of proving herself worthy of a unicorn. She can only do so by succeeding in various areas of her life, from her relationship with her parents to her new "proper" job as a print assistant.
Our story moves along briskly as we cut from morning to night, grey office to rainbow Unicorn Store, with no real emotional thread. Larson's no-frills direction does a satisfactory job bringing Samantha McIntyre's script to life, with bright moments when Larson gets to show off her excellent comic timing.
Kit's love interest comes in the form of hardware store worker Virgil, played by Mamoudou Athie. For all its predictability, there's a layer of sweetness in the relationship, and the film's overall message of acceptance and love. Kit briefly faces a rival for her parents' affection in counsellor Kevin, played by Karan Soni. He channels the nerds of Napoleon Dynamite, along with several other underdeveloped and deadpan characters in the film.
It's hard to connect to Kit through the glitter and rainbows, despite Larson's best efforts. She tries to make the right changes to her life, but also seeks acceptance for exactly who she is right now. Her parents, played warmly by Joan Cusack and Bradley Whitford, are counsellors at a camp for young people dealing with real difficulties in their lives, some abuse-related. Their briefly touched-upon struggles cast an unfavorable light on Kit, whose greatest hardship is not receiving the unicorn she dreamed of as a child.
The scenes in Kit's office of identical cubicles offer a spike of commentary via a dull and slow-talking sexual predator played by Hamish Linklater. This is delivered with a light hand and may have been a missed opportunity to provide more depth to Kit's experience.
Instead, she's treated to on-the-nose neatly packaged lines of wisdom, from "Everyone needs a little magic in their lives, even if they're all grown up" to "The most grown-up thing you can do is fail at the things you care about."
No prizes for guessing what happens in the end: Unicorn Store is more about unleashing the weirdness of Larson and Jackson and assuring young people, like they didn't already know, that it's OK to be who you are. Yet ultimately, for a sweet film about dreamers and unicorns, it's curiously black-and-white.