Unicorn Store movie review: a fantastic beast

part of my On Netflix Globally and Directed by Women series
MaryAnn’s quick take: More movies like this, please: a piquant mix of whimsy and snark; an insistence that it’s not crazy to forge your own oddball path; an embrace of girly uncool. Bring on the weird, difficult women.
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for movies by and about women; love Brie Larson
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
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Bring on the weird, difficult women. I have had my fill of kooky, cheerful manic pixies for whom life is just one grand goofy freespirited adventure. I am so ready for more women like Unicorn Store’s Kit, who is prickly, stubborn, a tad self-centered, occasionally a bit mean, and very very frustrated with her messy, unsatisfying life. This is a movie that dares — and I’m being only a little sarcastic here — to say, “You know what, swanning around as a creative eccentric who lives inside your own unmonetizable dreams is not a recipe for easygoing happiness in our conformist for-profit culture.”

We need more movies like Unicorn Store, with its piquant mix of whimsy and snark; its defiant insistence that it’s not crazy to think you’re crazy for wanting to forge your own oddball path, because yeah, it’s hard; and — maybe most of all — its resolute embrace of the uncool girliness of a love of sherbet colors and a penchant for rainbows and sparkles. Because everything coded “stuff girls like” and “what women are into” has been denigrated by our pop culture for way too long in exactly the opposite way of how “stuff boys like” and “what men are into” has been celebrated. Enough of this double standard. Unicorn Store skewers it.

Unicorn Store Bradley Whitford Joan Cusack
“But have you tried being just a little more dun-colored, honey?”

Kit (Brie Larson: Basmati Blues, Kong: Skull Island) makes pretty things out of girly stuff, and that’s what gets her kicked out of art school: her famous and respected (and male) professor is unable to see her glitter-sprinkled work as art. (If only she could be monochrome and minimalist!) Off home skulks Kit, to where Mom (Joan Cusack: Welcome to Me, Arthur Christmas) and Dad (Bradley Whitford: Destroyer, The Darkest Minds) are ready to be oh-so soothing and helpful and supportive, although they don’t quite get her, either, and really, maybe it’s time she settled down and started to fit in? So she “grows up” and gets a “real job” at a PR agency making photocopies, because this is surely the best use the world has for her talent and her weirdness, right? Goddamn.

It’s here where screenwriter Samantha McIntyre — a TV writer making her feature debut — and director Larson herself — also making her feature debut (she’s previously directed a couple of shorts) — stir the spicy pepper into the glitter that Kit loves. There’s more than a touch of Office Space to Kit’s sojourn into the corporate world, where her new boss (Hamish Linklater: The Big Short, Magic in the Moonlight) is a hair-sniffing creep and the workplace is a flat, gray, open-plan hell. Unicorn Store isn’t straight-up My Little Powerpuff: the depressing blahness of “the real world,” “the adult world” is in full force here, and it’s a helluva lot less exaggerated than Kit’s aesthetic is. Her big mood feels like a deliberate reaction to it.

The depressing blahness of “the real world” is in full force here, and it’s a helluva lot less exaggerated than Kit’s My Little Powerpuff aesthetic is.

But then, just as Kit is trying out mainstream conventionality like it’s a sort of off-brand cosplay, strange letters begin to arrive, at home as well as at the office: exhortations to prepare herself for something major, and then an invitation to visit The Store, where, she discovers, she shall be able to acquire a unicorn. An actual real-live unicorn! The pet and companion she has always longed for. If she can prove that she’s worthy of one and can take care of it in a manner befitting such a noble creature.

Is this some long game of a swindle, and its proprietor, The Salesman (Samuel L. Jackson: Glass, The Hitman’s Bodyguard), a con artist? Is it all a figment of Kit’s imagination, a reaction to the misery of having to abandon her dreams? Or could The Store be real, perhaps the universe’s way of forcing her to recapture her true self and find a way to make who she is fit into the world without having to give up too much?

Unicorn Store Samuel L. Jackson Brie Larson
“You want fries with your unicorn? Nah, just kiddin’…”

Along the way to learning the answers to those questions, Kit will make friends with gentle, kind hardware-store worker Virgil (Mamoudou Athie: The Front Runner, Experimenter), who helps her build a unicorn stable (though he doesn’t know that’s what he’s doing); and The Salesman perhaps gives her some kicks in the butt, too. (Larson and Jackson share the same delicious comic chemistry they display in Captain Marvel.) But unlike many a cinematic man who has found himself in a similar situation, Kit will have to make do without a manic pixie dream boy to guide her to functioning adulthood. Because women made this movie and women always have to be realistic about life, even in our (maybe?) fantasy movies. Unicorn Store does not let its protagonist off the hook for her bullshit, doesn’t tell her she’s just perfect the way she is and doesn’t need to shape up. And it mostly forces her to fix herself. Even in our make-believe reveries, women are doing it for themselves. Because no one else will.

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