“Unicorn Store,” Brie Larson’s directorial debut, tells a story that might be painfully relatable to many of us in the coming years — the story of a recent college graduate searching for meaning in a grown-up world that she doesn’t quite feel a part of. Our protagonist Kit, played by Larson, joins a temp agency after graduation from art school. She lives a life of mundanity until she is invited to The Store, a magical institution run by The Salesman (Samuel L. Jackson in a parade of vibrantly patterned suits). The Salesman promises her the gift of a real-life unicorn … so long as she proves herself worthy of it.
While “Unicorn Store” purports itself as a story about the importance of embracing the child within each of us, its own internal logic does not support this claim. It has a serious case of protagonist tunnel vision: our main character is the only person in the story who goes through a meaningful character arc. Of course, it’s not necessary for each character to stand up and give an impassioned speech at the movie’s close, but none of them seem capable of garnering enough material to deliver such a speech. Kit’s coworkers are feeble sketches of stereotypes — the meek assistant, the jealous secretary, the sexist ad man — none of whom contribute anything meaningful to the plot other than set decoration for Kit’s journey.
It’s not as if the actors don’t have the range to portray more complex characters. Kit’s parents are played by Joan Cusack and Bradley Whitford, both award-winning actors and seasoned performers. Samuel L. Jackson needs no introduction. Even the less experienced or less well-known actors, such as Karan Soni (most widely known for his portrayal of the incompetent but endearing cab driver Dopinder in “Deadpool” and its sequel) or Martha MacIsaac (tennis superstar Jane “Peaches” Barkowitz in “Battle of the Sexes”) clearly have the comedic chops to effectively capture the audience’s interest. Mamoudou Athie, who plays a hardware store salesman enlisted by Kit to help in the construction of her unicorn stable, is charming but grounded, bringing an element of realism to the plot without ever being stifling. Unfortunately, he’s not given much to do, which is a pity considering his charisma.
If the message of the film is a celebration of the unique perspective that each person brings to the world, the focus on Kit as our only point of reference reverses the theme of communal support. At one point, The Salesman admonishes Kit for her selfishness and asks her if she’s ever considered that the people who run The Store have their own reasons for doing so. However, this point is never followed through, and The Salesman does not exist beyond a mystical figure. This also unfortunately plays into stereotypes of the “Magical Negro” trope, a Black character who possesses magical powers (often built upon racist misconceptions of African spiritual leaders) and whose only role is to empower the white protagonist.
Another fault lies in the construction of the film’s world. Early scenes seem to indicate an overdramatized, artificial world — or at least one that reflects Kit’s perception of it. (The temp agency that she joins is called “Temporary Happiness,” a pun that, although obvious, works to the film’s advantage.) But the rest of the film fails to embrace this slightly off-kilter setting. Like the film’s message, its setting does not have much substance behind it. Whatever comments the film attempts to make are swallowed up by either their obviousness or their obscurity. The topics of depression, elitism and sexism, especially in regards to sexualization in advertising and workplace harassment, are all brought up, but the film offers no real conclusions on how to best deal with them.
Despite its flaws, “Unicorn Store” is an earnest movie. Most of its comedic moments pay off, and the script never feels ingenuine, just underdeveloped. Larson’s directing style is simple but effective. Her chemistry with her co-stars is invigorating. The arguments between Kit and her parents over her future plans feel very real, particularly for a viewer who attends a liberal arts college and who is constantly asked (in a way that feels kind but patronizing) what I’m going to do with that major. Larson brings an infectious cheer to Kit at the same time as she utilizes a quiet, internal strength and struggle, which is seen in roles such as her Academy Award-winning performance in “Room.”
All of the movie’s weaknesses work to make the viewer more dissatisfied with the final product. Its potential makes me excited to see Larson’s future work, but this film falls flat. There’s a genuinely compelling story in there, buried under all the glitter, but it’s obscured by confusing logic and a meandering plot.