A failed art student gets invited to the titular establishment.
Directed by Brie Larson
Starring Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, and Mamoudou Athie
Review by Jon Kissel
What is recognizable in Unicorn Store is the trend of the boomerang millennial who leaves home and then returns for want of a job. The film as written by Samantha McIntyre almost has something to say in its erection of a straw man debate between deadening corporate culture and an adulthood characterized by puff paints, but that realization is one that Kit is overdue for by about five years. There’s some kind of metaphor here where the unicorn represents a happy adulthood secured after meeting requirements like shelter and income and emotional support, but there actually is a unicorn in the film so the metaphor also goes out the window. Larson’s history is as someone who came from a struggling family when she was a child, but she’s been a working actress for all of her adult life. I don’t know if she’s that attuned to what it is to feel aimless or adrift, and if she does, it’s not in her film.
To the film’s credit, it does synch up with Larson’s interests in shedding male gatekeepers. She has spoken about the lack of diversity in film criticism, which is a wholly valid concern, but she’s also pretended that movies like A Wrinkle in Time didn’t get a fair shake from white male critics when plenty of minority critics also didn’t like it. Sidebar, but that kind of statement is infuriating, and real critics of all genders and races also have little patience for this argument. It’s good that Ava Duvernay gets nine figures to make a film, but then she has to deliver. Anyways, Kit’s disapproving art teacher who only wants people to ape his style and Hamish Linklater’s predatory boss are heavy-handed but credible characters that, again, would benefit from a film that wasn’t so elevated. Linklater especially is an exaggerated trope instead of a credible person, making him seem almost as fantastical as the unicorn itself.
As Kit, Larson doesn’t embody the character like she has in her earlier roles. There’s an earnestness to Kit that comes off as forced and artificial, and a petulance that no actor in their late 20’s could pull off. By attracting so many characters to her cause, Unicorn Store insists that Kit is likable without doing the work of actually making her so. In supporting roles, Samuel L Jackson with tinsel in his hair is something, but he’s also a literal magic black person who exists to prop up sad white ladies. As love interest Virgil, Mamoudou Athie is mind-numbingly flat. This may be a conscious choice in relief to Kit, but that doesn’t make it a good one. The characters in the vacuum office have satirical potential, but they don’t get comeuppance and they can’t be faulted for not going with Kit’s glitter-heavy presentation that she shows up late for. One can almost hear the foot-stamping off-camera when they tell Kit no.
Larson’s career is set now that she’s likely to be a fixture in the MCU over the next ten years, so if this is what she wants to use her power on, then good for her. Short Term 12 and Room are both some of the best performances of the decade, and I know I would coast on that goodwill for as long as possible and a little longer. I just hope that she can find a project worthy of her talents again and avoid getting sucked into CGI spectacle interspersed with half-baked indie projects that disappear the week after being dumped on Netflix. It took three sittings over four days to knock out Unicorn Store. If Larson’s next crack at directing only takes two sittings over three days, I’ll take solace in her improvement. C-