Contrary to popular belief, being an only child is a struggle. There are certain traits those with “Only Child Syndrome” can ever truly understand, and seldom do outsiders know how to adequately capture what it’s like growing up in such an environment. You have the undivided attention of your parents at all times. And yes, you tend to be spoiled. As a kid, it’s great! However, transitioning into adulthood, all this attention can become somewhat of a burden as your once-attentive parents no longer consider you the focal point of their very existence. Once you’re no longer the center of their world, it’s a harsh reality check. To make matters worse, since they’re the people who’ve known you best for most of your life, you get easily offended when they don’t seem to get you. Part of you still expects that attention.
These are just some of the dilemmas that “only children” have been facing since the dawn of time, ones that are delicately – and sometimes absurdly – touched on in Unicorn Store, one of those rare films that perfectly captures what it’s like to be an only child. But it offers more than just commentary on this topic, which is really just the backdrop to a larger and more satisfying look at the intersection of passion in an increasingly passionless world. It’s also about getting tangible closure with your childhood – one that’s incredibly sacred because it makes you who you are.
We also get a refreshing take on the creative process and how it defines us as individuals, even in areas we least expect. This movie is about a lot of different things, but somehow they’re all related. The ability for each person to connect to the story in a different way is what makes the larger picture all the more beautiful.
Unicorn Store follows Kit (Brie Larson, also making her directorial debut), a failed artist who decides to move back in with her parents. Feeling defeated, she spends her time moping around in pajamas on the couch trying to figure out the next step in her life. Painting is all she knows, so if she failed at that, where does that leave her? It’s an issue every struggling artist deals with. An identity crisis. Picking a career that literally relies on other people’s acceptance of your vision in order to actually make money. Is she still an artist even if everyone in her field tells her that she’s not?
Kit’s art is surrealistic. Filled with glitter and rainbows and unicorns – don’t you forget the unicorns. To everyone else it’s childish, but to Kit, her paintings are an accurate expression of who she truly is at her core. Something she’s been all her life.
Eventually Kit decides to give in to “societal norms” by landing a temp job at an advertising agency. This new career path is obviously outside of her comfort zone. Her new boss Gary (Hamish Linklater) takes a liking to her, so her vague job suddenly becomes a bit easier. He says she can present an idea for an upcoming vacuum cleaner advertisement. Make something new and creative, he tells her, which is right up her alley. However, this enthusiasm is quickly spoiled as she realizes Gary only thinks he wants something new and creative, when what he really means is something safe and more traditional – another unfortunate inevitability in “creative” industries.
Through all this, Kit keeps receiving mysterious letters that invite her to some place called “The Store”. When she gets there, she realizes the whole thing has been catered to her. The Salesman (Samuel L. Jackson) offers her an opportunity to own a real life unicorn if she passes a few tests to prove that she’s suitable. So I guess The Store doesn’t really sell unicorns–instead making you work for and earn one. Since owning a unicorn is something she’s dreamed about since she was a young girl, Kit jumps at the opportunity, never doubting or even once questioning that The Salesman is full of it.
Through all this, Kit keeps receiving mysterious letters inviting her to a place called “The Store”. When she gets there, she realizes the whole place has been catered to her. A man named The Salesman (Samuel L. Jackson) offers her the chance of a lifetime: the opportunity to own a real unicorn. That is, if she’s able to pass a series of tests to prove her suitability. In this way The Store isn’t about selling these mythical creatures, but about making you work for and earn one. Since owning a unicorn is something she’s dreamed about since she was a young girl, Kit jumps at The Salesman’s offer, never doubting or even once questioning whether he’s full of it.
It should go without saying that it’s this point where the film ventures into the surreal, making us realize that perhaps everything we’re witnessing is an allegory for something – though we’re not sure what that is yet. But in order to excuse Kit’s unrealistic behavior and subsequent decisions (and, again, unicorns), we, the audience, are practically required to accept it’s some sort of metaphor. Uncovering just what kind will be the real trick.
Kit’s personality tends to trade off between hyperaware and clueless when it’s convenient, though she’s more believable when being oblivious to things around her, because that’s where she inherently likes to be. Ironically, it’s when she’s more firmly planted in the former that the film becomes slightly less convincingly – even if those are the times she’s grounding the film the most.
Perennially single, Kit meets Virgil (Mamoudou Athie) who she eventually develops a relationship with after hiring him to build her a stable for her unicorn. She also begins to open up to her tree-hugger parents (Joan Cusack and Bradley Whitford) about underlying resentment towards them that has haunted her for years. Wounds start healing and her life is becoming whole as she strives for her main goal in the meantime.
The humor in Unicorn Store is both surrealistic and dark. Coming off the blockbuster smash Captain Marvel, Larson doesn’t need to prove she’s an amazing actress (she is an Oscar-winner, after all), though she does struggle when attempting raw comedy, lacking a certain conviction during those moments. Thankfully, she has enough charisma (and dramatic-acting skills) to propel us through the film unscathed. She pulls double-duty as the film’s director, though it’s difficult to get a sense if she’s a natural behind the camera or not based on this effort.
What makes Unicorn Store so great is how far it goes beyond its main objective, never solely relying on what might have been superficial commentary about an “only child” learning to make her way in the world. There’s a lot of symbolism and nuance along the way, the kind that lets us look back and realize what the filmmakers were really trying to say all along. This movie’s unconventionality has a tendency to alienate us a few times when we aren’t quite sure what’s happening or even why it’s happening. But in the end, we get an unbelievably deserved conclusion. And the story serves as a beautiful example of how the root of our creativity can be directly linked to our childhood. Or better yet, our inner-child.
Originally published on May 8, 2019 at https://www.popzara.com/movies/vod-reviews/unicorn-store-2019/