Capitalizing on the Captain Marvel buzz, Brie Larson’s directorial debut Unicorn Store hit Netflix just days ago and has since been met with mixed responses. The film is a heartwarming, quirky tale that meanders through the life of a young artist trying to come to terms with adulthood. It’s fun and lighthearted, with a fantastic cast, quality performances, and only a few questionable music choices.
The story follows Kit, a twenty-something art student who gets kicked out of a stodgy art school and is forced to move back home with her overbearing, awkward parents. A depressing television montage spurs her to do something with her life, so she gets a temp job making copies in an even stodgier office, where her boss creepily hits on her despite the fact that she wears nothing but her mother’s thirty-year-old suits. Soon, invitations to “The Store” start showing up on her desk and in her bag and a lot of other places weird invitations shouldn’t show up, and she decides—for some inexplicable reason—to go there. She of course finds Samuel L. Jackson in an old church offering to fulfill her wildest dreams, which, I mean, who doesn’t want that? But before she can get a unicorn, however, she has to prove that she’s worthy of owning one: she has to build a home for it, find food for it, create a loving environment for it…you know, typical unicorn care stuff.
On the surface, this film is exactly the charming experience it advertises itself to be. Kit fixes her relationships, finds herself, and does it all with childlike wonder, rainbows, glitter, and a healthy helping of self-centered cynicism. Looking deeper, however, Unicorn Store reveals itself as a confusing study in contradictions. It is an indie film made for people who don’t watch indie films, with a vaguely quirky aesthetic couched in traditional camerawork and style choices. A separate writer and director deprives it of the seamless cohesion and message that naturally arises from an auteur, and the film relies far too heavily on whimsy and tinsel to stitch up weak spots in the writing. It’s lazy in the most meticulous way and heavy-handed with an attempted hands-off approach. It revels in its erratic pacing, leaving you the viewer to wonder what you’re missing.
But where Unicorn Store fails as a film, it succeeds in an almost painfully honest depiction of the millennial experience.
People who study generations for a living have termed millennials and Gen Y synonymous—those born between 1981 and 1996—though in general usage, “millennials” tends to refer more to the younger half of Gen Y—those born in the late 1980s and early 1990s, or more accurately, those who entered the workforce after the 2008 recession. Larson herself falls right in the middle of this subset of a generation, which is probably what drew her to the film in the first place—and almost definitely what influenced everything the movie came to be.
Unicorn Store is obviously a metaphor for growing up without losing your inner sparkle and inherent you-ness. The metaphor is so obvious, in fact, it begs you to look for deeper meanings at every turn, without ever fully exploring any other ideas. The film touches on feeling unloved, on trying and failing, on truly seeing other people and trusting them, on…sexual assault, casually. But it never fully commits to taking a stance on anything except following your heart/dreams/own personal rainbow.
Throughout the entire movie, Kit willfully avoids any kind of character development, and rather than changing her ways, the main story arc revolves around other people coming to accept her selfishness and adorkable, quirky ignorance. Which makes sense, given that her spirit guide is a self-proclaimed salesman and her parents are kale fanatics who run a youth camp called “Emotion Quest”—not exactly great role models for doing the hard thing and becoming better.
The film builds toward the climactic unicorn unveiling in an oddly suspenseful way, forcing you to hold both the idea that she’s crazy and the idea that unicorns are real in such a way that either ending will inevitably disappoint. It glosses over conflicts and troubling ideas in favor of idealism, with an impossible to understand ending that forces you to just shrug and move on.
More than just depicting the millennial experience, this film is the millennial experience.
Surface-level activism and an abundance of buzzwords float above an off-putting, inexplicable emotional swamp. Quirkiness is touted at every turn without ever truly breaking any molds. Weak ideas, conflict, and poorly-thought out arguments rely on saccharine aesthetics and positive messaging to cover them. Garden-variety cynicism abounds solely for the sake of being contrary.
If you broke open the collective millennial soul, you’d find this film.
In addition to Unicorn Store’s millennial-centric directorial decisions and plot devices, Kit and the other characters deftly embody every accusation thrown at millennials—lazy, entitled, idealistic, narcissistic, incapable, ignorant—in an attempt to somehow both mock the stereotypes and appeal to the people living in them. “You’re not special!” one character screams for no reason, while in the next breath the Salesman tells Kit that she couldn’t be just anybody, because only she was invited to the Store. It’s clear that all the tropes in this movie are purposeful. What’s less clear is the point it’s trying to make about any of them.
Which, in a sense, is the genius of the film.
The millennial experience overall is characterized by a feeling of being lost. It’s a feeling of floating aimlessly through a world built around the ideals of other people. It’s feeling lonely and misunderstood while trying to do your best. It is, at its core, simply the feeling of being young and on the cusp of adulthood, colored by the unique social and technological times.
Unicorn Store captures this feeling in both content and execution, challenging you to judge and examine not the film, but yourself. What unicorns are you chasing? What dreams are you not fulfilling? How true are your expectations about life? Will your life be everything you want it to be? Is it already?
There are no real answers to these questions, of course, which is reflected in the film’s inexplicable ending. But even as Unicorn Store makes millennials uncomfortable with its honest—if odd—portrayal of their lives, it simultaneously appeals to their most base sensibilities. It has rainbows and sparkles and unicorns, the rallying trends of a Peter Pan generation, as well as quirky, surface-level relationships that seem to go deeper than they actually do. It has cultural buzzwords and relatable moments, be-true-to-yourself messages and meaningless pep talks. The entire crux of the movie is that people should accept you for who you are, even if who you are is largely terrible.
While Unicorn Store wasn’t a strong film, it showed a lot of potential. Brie Larson has a future in directing, I think, once she finds solid footing and figures out what she truly wants to say. But until then, millennial or not, this film is worth a watch solely for Samuel L. Jackson with tinsel in his hair and to say that you saw Mamoudou Athie before he was cool. Because that kid is going places.