There are always those indie darlings at film festivals that don’t get the attention they deserve. One of those from the Toronto International Film Festival this year is Unicorns. The Swimmers director, Sally El Hosaini, and co-director and writer, James Krishna Floyd, create a story about a cross-cultural, queer romance that’s both raw and heartfelt. An ode to the South “gaysian” drag scene in London, with two strong lead performances, it’s a solid crowd-pleaser that works as an alluring and insightful examination of identity.
Stumbling into an underground nightclub, Luke (Ben Hardy) watches as a beautiful, seductive woman dances onstage. There’s an immediate, undeniable connection as the music fades and they lock eyes. The first kiss between him and Aysha (Jason Patel) is electric — until he realizes that she isn’t a cisgender woman but a drag queen. Shocked and conflicted about how he feels, he leaves in embarrassment. However, this awkward hookup lingers on their minds, resulting in a relationship that neither would have expected. At first, their relationship is a transaction: Luke needs money and Aysha needs a driver. Through this, Luke is not only introduced to London’s thriving “gaysian” scene but a beautiful friendship forms between them. They go through a transformative journey that creates a very feel-good experience. As they spend more time together, Unicorns becomes an honest and nuanced look at navigating colliding cultures and how love defies traditional labels.
The chemistry between Hardy and Patel is palpable. The script dives into their characters’ lives, peeling back the layers of each in a way that comes from moving conversations between them. As the characters spend more time together and navigate the challenges and conflicts in their lives, you realize that they are both lonely people who represent something the other has been missing, whether that’s family or companionship. The pair go through a difficult emotional journey, together and apart, forming a beautiful relationship that is made more affecting thanks to the lead performances. Hardy as a struggling single dad with a tough guy exterior goes through an unexpected identity crisis that breaks down that socially constructed idea of masculinity that has been forced on him. You see Luke’s internal conflict as he fights to succumb to his feelings, with a constant look of longing in Hardy’s eyes and the smile of a school-age crush. Aysha is also going through an identity crisis, again fueled by the expectations of society but also those of her culture. By night she may be this fearless, confident drag queen but by day she’s Ashiq, a young man struggling to be what his strict, Muslim family would want him to be. Living a double life with conflict at every turn, this character perfectly speaks to the struggles that queer people face but also explores how difficult it is for drag artists to define who they are under the gender binary.
It’s hard to be yourself around people. But then you find that person and everything changes. That’s what Unicorns is about: Finding yourself when you feel lost. There are those films where watching them feels especially rewarding, and El Hosaini and Krishna Floyd have created one of those experiences. While there is a moment that abruptly changes the tone of the film, it does remain an honest and nuanced piece that is elevated by a soft, contemplative score and a soundtrack full of bangers. It’s a charming, emotional drama with stirring performances that look at love, identity, and even chosen family in a way that will leave you wanting to explore this relationship even more. We need more films like Unicorns.