They say you can tell a lot about a character by what they want. In Unicorn Store, what the protagonist Kit wants is a unicorn she can play checkers with. Let this be an early warning to those of you with a low tolerance for quirk.
Unicorn Store is the directorial debut of actress Brie Larson. Shot back in 2017, it’s only releasing on Netflix this month, no doubt to capitalise on her Captain Marvel buzz. Larson stars as Kit, an aspiring artist who is essentially a child in a 20-something’s body. She loves watching cartoons, arranging Care Bears and dressing in outfits too juvenile for an 8-year old. She loves unicorns most of all.
When we first meet her, Kit has reached a dead end. She’s just failed art school, has no career or romantic prospects to speak of and her supportive parents worry obsessively about her future. It seems the time has finally come for her to put away childish things and get a proper job. She quickly finds work as a temp at a bland PR firm where she drinks coffee, wears a suit and stands by the watercooler.
But just as Kit resigns herself to a life of worker bee drudgery, she gets a mysterious envelope. Inside is a Wonka-esque ticket inviting her to a mysterious building. There she meets a pink-suited salesman called The Salesman (Samuel L. Jackson). He tells her that the place is a unicorn store. It just so happens that Kit’s lifelong dream has been owning a unicorn. But before she can get one, she has to prove she can handle the responsibility.
Few things are as demonised in popular culture as the office space. They are always cartoonishly oppressive prisons for dead-eyed people, sterile petri dishes where only the most bland and obnoxious organisms survive. They exist solely as an obstacle for our hero, a place designed specifically to drown their potential under a sea of earning reports and printer cartridges.
That trope is used in full force here as there is constant conflict between Kit’s childlike idealism and her soul-sucking workplace. But it’s undermined from the outset by the film’s desire to also be some sort of heightened reality satire in the vein of The Office.
Quirkiness is relative. When your PR company is called PR&R PR and your boss harbours dreams of being a figure skater, the unicorn-obsessed millennial barely registers on the Quirk-o-meter. This also sets you up a tonal nightmare once the aforementioned wacky boss starts sexually harassing her.
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If you’re wondering how sexual harassment fits into a story about buying unicorns, the answer is “badly”. It’s an ill-judged subplot that is one of the film’s few half-hearted ventures into more serious indie territory. You know you’ve crossed that border when the camera shakes and everyone starts having earnest conversations.
At least these scenes usually feature Kit’s handyman love interest, Virgil (Mamoudou Athie). One of the film’s few bright spots, Athie does well with a character who can’t really be described beyond “normal guy” and his deadpan baritone is a welcome relief from Kit’s unremitting whimsy. Jackson also appears to be having fun. Even if he doesn’t do much more than hand out forms relating to the ownership of unicorns.
If Unicorn Store had the restraint to go one route, it would have worked better as an indie dramedy, despite its unconventional premise. A millennial struggling to grow up in this nostalgia-soaked world is fertile and timely material. But it’s wasted by a film that approaches it with the subtlety of Kit’s rainbow-coloured pyjamas.
Our heroine isn’t just in a state of arrested development, she’s infantilised to the point of parody. Worse is that Larson never comes close to selling it, to making us believe that she is this weirdo misfit who struggles to hack it in the real world. She’s too relaxed, too charming, too full of the self-assurance and spunk it takes for a young actress to reach the top of the greasy Hollywood pile.
There are quirks and mannerisms but no insight into what makes a true outsider tick. She’s an insider’s idea of an outsider and no amount of bug-eyed expressions or stylishly unstylish outfits can convince us otherwise.
It seems that Larson, like Kit, still has some growing up to do.