'Unicorn Store' Review: Brie Larson Shines as Director of Lisa Frank Crisis
Sandwiched between two major Marvel movies, Brie Larson's first directing effort is a sugary sweet sentimental dramedy about one aging millennial.
In between Brie Larson kicking ass in Captain Marvel and kicking ass in Avengers: Endgame, the Oscar-winning actress is suffering through a different kind of crisis in her arts and crafts directorial debut Unicorn Store. Stuffed with sugary sweet sentimentality, the film is like cotton candy to the senses, a taste of Larson as a director that makes you yearn for an actual meal.
Acquired by Netflix after two years in distribution limbo, Unicorn Store is a modern fantasy about a millennial woman stuck in arrested development.
Kicked out of art school, Kit (Larson) moves back in with her hippie parents. While languishing at a temp job, Kit receives an invitation to “The Store,” run by The Salesman (Samuel L. Jackson) who offers to fulfill her dream of owning an actual unicorn, but only if she proves herself by building an honest-to-goodness horse stable in her backyard and improving her emotional relationship with her parents.
There are no visible stakes in Unicorn Store, but it features one central question — Is this unicorn guy for real? — that doesn’t have the meaty substance it should. The movie shines in moments of brilliance thanks to Larson, who breathes life as a Lisa Frank folder in a world of manila envelope humans, but it never comes together as a greater whole.
From the onset, Unicorn Store has a lot going for it thanks to Larson’s good instincts as a storyteller. There is relentless forward momentum in her movie. If it’s not her camera that’s moving, or her characters in fun match-cuts (spot one moment where it looks like Kit runs from the dreamlike Store and right into a Staples), it’s the script’s dialogue that brims with personality. There’s always a good joke, or an eccentricity to these characters that Larson knows how to weaponize to her advantage.
If anything, Larson’s disadvantage is her script. Penned by Samantha McIntyre, its sharp dialogue doesn’t make up for its dull plotting and unfulfilling story. There’s a great story to be told about childhood, adulthood, and the hazy space in between, but Unicorn Store doesn’t nail the landing. And while Larson knows how to direct the hell out of every scene, the script’s glaring flaws prevent her from steering the whole ship.
Unicorn Store is still a remarkable demonstration of Larson’s skill. Her style is reminiscent of Edgar Wright and Shane Black, two directors who share a knack for showing personality in editing and rhythm. Larson too has a real grasp of how to tell a story without bloat and peppered with memorable secondary characters.
In fact, Larson’s film is maybe too lean. Many of the film’s supporting characters really could have benefitted from more time.
Accompanying Larson is a roster of great supporting actors, plus a revelation. Of course there’s Jackson, who should be a fixture in all Brie Larson movies because of their unbelievable chemistry, introduced in Captain Marvel and undeniably confirmed in Unicorn Store.
But there’s also Bradley Whitford and Joan Cusack as Kit’s parents who are more down to Earth than meets the eye; Hamish Linklater as a mouth-breathing HR nightmare; Karan Soni, best known as Dopinder from the Deadpool films, as Steve Urkel reincarnate; and Mamoudou Athie as Virgil, Kit’s platonic-ish rock through her quarter-life dilemma.
Of all of them, Athie is the most interesting. Though the least experienced of the film’s principal cast, Athie screams “breakthrough” in his soft-spoken role opposite Larson. He’s so good and comfortable with the film’s lead that it’s almost excusable when you realize his character’s actual function in the story is virtually useless.
Unicorn Store is fun and amusing, but it’s not a knee-slapping delight or the must-see indie dramedy about the plight of aging millennials. There’s more promise in Larson as a director than there is anything to glean from her coming-of-later-age tale. But in between Larson’s monster-sized Marvel movies, there’s no harm done in taking a bite of something sweet.
Unicorn Store begins streaming on Netflix on April 5.