“Does it read a little childish?” Angie (Susan Parks) asks, about midway through Brie Larson’s Unicorn Store. “The rainbow-magicalness of it all?” She’s talking about a presentation for a vacuum cleaner campaign (don’t ask), but it’s a question you can bounce at the entire movie, which focuses on a young woman named Kit (Larson) who is overtly, perhaps aggressively, childlike — a rare female Peter Pan. But as her story begins, she’s all but given up; she’s an art-school dropout, jobless, living in her parents’ basement. Even her relentlessly chipper folks (Bradley Whitford and Joan Cusack) are pushing her to grow up a little. “You guys still like me, right?” she asks her Care Bears, pointedly.
Mostly to appease the ‘rents, she responds to a TV ad for the “Temporary Success” temp agency (“Achieve your temporary dreams”), which places her at “PR&R PR,” where she strains to fit in with the rest of the office drones. But she keeps getting these mysterious, ornate cards, inviting her to “The Store,” where she meets “The Salesman” (Larson’s Kong: Skull Island co-star Samuel L. Jackson, who seems to be having a great time), and yes, it turns out the title is not a metaphor, and The Salesman would like to sell her the unicorn she longed for as a little girl. “This isn’t real, and I’m a businesslady now!” she insists. “I’m gonna go buy graph paper!”
I know, I know, this all sounds twee and insufferable, and occasionally, it is. But Samantha McIntyre’s script is also at least moderately self-aware (when The Salesman explains that Kit has to prove herself a worthwhile unicorn owner, she replies, “What, I gotta hang a magic rainbow in my kitchen or some shit?”), and the performers seem to know exactly what kind of movie they’re in, particularly the very dry and very funny Hamish Linklater, and romantic interest Mamoudou Athie (from Patti Cake$ and The Get Down), who not only exhibits peerless comic timing, but a whole little symphony of non-verbal emotions when Kit finally tells him why he’s helping her build a stable.
It’s easy to dismiss Unicorn Store as cutesy pap, but Larson is so warm and open — as a character, as an actor, and as a filmmaker — that you’re rooting for her, which goes a long way. I can’t imagine it getting made without her; she’s almost certainly why it’s at TIFF. But she can actually say a line like “Now that this dream is coming true, it just makes me think, what else can happen,” and not have you pawing for a vomit bag, and when she talks about “these dudes that I just tiptoe around because I think they know so many things, but they don’t — I know things,” it starts to feel like more than just an extended New Girl episode.
To be sure, her movie is wildly uneven, its tone veering wildly between deadpan absurdism, calculated whimsy, screwball comedy, honest emotion, and groan-worthy treacle (its climax includes the lines “It’s an art show of my life” and “If you were a building, this is what you’d look like,” so, y’know, proceed with caution). But it’s harmless and enjoyable, and occasionally, swear to God, just the teeny, tiniest bit touching.
(This review was originally published in September 2017)
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