UNICORN STORE is an aesthetic, colourful and whimsical directorial debut from American actress and filmmaker Brie Larson, but not just that. Underneath the layers of glitters and shiny colours lies an unusual coming-of-age story about empowerment and self-acceptance.
The film intelligently navigates between comedic and emotional scenes, following the odd and fanciful life of Kit (Brie Larson), a failed art graduate who reluctantly moves back in with her judgmental, yet loving, parents (Joan Cusack and Bradley Whitford). Under pressure to jump into adulthood, she finds a temp job at an advertising agency. Shortly after starting her job, Kit receives a puzzling letter from ‘The Salesman’ (Samuel. L. Jackson) inviting her to ‘The Store’. There, he offers Kit the chance to finally get what she really needs and has always dreamed of: a unicorn. But being a unicorn owner comes with great responsibilities, and she must prove herself worthy of it first. On her journey, she requests the help of Virgil (Mamoudou Athie), a hardware store employee she hires to build a stable, hiding the real purpose of it from him .
However, even if Samantha McIntyre’s screenplay is an absolute delight – with a compelling sense of humour, captivating characters, and clever storyline – it has also its flaws. Despite the cast delivering their lines with brio and pertinence, the second half of the film pours slowly into pathos and self-explanatory scenes, trying to make some practical sense of the symbolism behind the unicorn. The magical and bizarre atmosphere first developed now makes too much sense and has lost its singular flavour, leaving a bittersweet feeling when the ending credits rolls on screen. Nevertheless, the film is full of clever mise-en-scène, and offers a great analysis of our contemporary world.
The notion of femininity is central here, and comes to raise an important question which applies to anybody on Earth: how do you reconcile your inner child with your adult self? The answer seems pretty simple: self-acceptance. This is easy to say but not so easy to do. Kit’s art teacher and mentor made it clear she has no future in the unforgiving world that is the art world. Her parents can’t help but push her on a path which will never fulfil her dreams for fear of seeing her fail. And the TV constantly throws at her success stories she cannot relate to. The unicorn represents Kit’s desire to see herself accepted by society (or at least one single person in this world) for who she is: a clumsy ultra-girly dreamer with barely any social skills. What could be less judgmental and more loving than a unicorn? Maybe Virgil, who blindly follows her in her plans despite not having a clue of what is going on.
Through Kit, the audience experiences the difficulties of finding your place in a world where your actions are constantly perceived as not enough or too much. Kit is too eccentric, too colourful, and not serious and realistic enough – in harsher words: too girly and not enough of a woman. Her sweet and dreamy attitude, encouraged during most girls’ childhoods, is no longer supported as Kit has an age where pink dreams must die and give way to a grey reality. More by despair than by conviction, Kit is then forced to put a new costume on in order to be accepted by her peers. Goodbye to sparkly rainbow tops, and hello to grey suits. Fortunately, Kit is stubborn and is not ready to let go that easily.
The film also approaches the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace through a very new and clever angle. Gary, Kit’s manager (brilliantly interpreted by Hamish Linklater), is a quirky and awkward man who weirdly encourages Kit to be the best version of herself and to reveal her ambitions. But what seems to be just clumsy flattery quickly turns out to be an insidious form of sexual harassment generating jealousy and unhealthy competition between the female workers of the company. The film intelligently destroys the figure of the harmless nerdy guy – used far too many times on screen – and refuses to use his social inabilities as an excuse for his inappropriate behaviour.
No matter its flaws, this film remains a surprising and unconventional study of society and adulthood. There is no need to be the girliest of the girls out there (or even to be a girl) to enjoy this intelligent and touching story.