For fans of Brie Larson, her rise to fame as an actress in the aftermath “Short Term 12” might have inspired some mixed emotions at first since it was around that same time she directed “The Arm,” a zesty short that premiered at Sundance and showed a directorial style every bit as inspired as her performances on the other side of the camera. Then again, having an Oscar has afforded Larson the opportunity to make a feature on her own terms and it was well worth the wait.
For Larson, not compromising her vision means a film completely free of cynicism yet conscious of the slings and arrows thrown by the world at every turn, and she has a field day with Samantha McIntyre’s slightly weird and altogether wonderful story of a young woman named Kit (Larson), who is forced to take an office job after taking her love of painting as far as it would go. Temping at a PR company, she finds encouragement from Gary (Hamish Linklater), the vice president (“of the company, not the United States,” he has to clarify) whose intentions seem less than pure, to pitch a campaign for a Mystic Vac Vacuum, as she starts receiving ornate invitations to come to “The Store,” with no signature or indication of what she’ll find there. Living with her parents (Joan Cusack and Bradley Whitford) and never not one to follow her curiosity, Kit walks in to “The Store” with an open mind — as the audience should — and finds Samuel L. Jackson decked out in pink from head to toe, calling himself the “Salesman” and offering her a unicorn.
The film avoids going into great detail about “The Store,” nor does Kit seek much out about it, satisfied after the Salesman insists he hasn’t lured her to the store to kill her and gives her details only she would know about how it was her dream to have a unicorn from the time she was a small child. While Kit may come off as naive for pursuing this fantasy, the story is considerably more sophisticated as the young woman is tasked by the Salesman to create proper accommodations for the unicorn that in effect get her out of her own head. In setting up the stable, she comes into contact with Virgil (Mamoudou Athie), a hardware store employee who who has to refer to YouTube in order to build walls for the horned creature (a detail she leaves out for him), but is inspired by Kit’s devotion; and her creativity is reawakened after being told time and again there’s no place for her candy-colored art creations.
With “Short Term 12” cinematographer Brett Pawlak and costume designer Mirren Gordon-Crozier onboard, “Unicorn Store,” crucially, has one foot grounded in reality at all times aesthetically, with bold flourishes of color from time to time and extraordinary yet clearly handmade outfits as the closest the film gets to actual fantasy, while Kit’s imagination is only exceeded by Larson’s as a filmmaker. Displaying the same inventiveness that was evident in “The Arm,” she uses every opportunity to heighten the experience of the film, quietly filling Kit’s temp office full of sets of twins to emphasize its homogeneity and creating every commercial that Kit watches on television as she’s slumped on the couch, trying to reclaim her sense of purpose. Between Alex Greenwald’s mischievous score that always hints at the magic Kit envisions in the world and Jennifer Vecchiarello’s whip around editing, it becomes a pleasure to start seeing what Kit does.
Although there is some mild confusion towards the end about what exactly “Unicorn Store” is trying to say, with the film alternately seeming to promote holding onto one’s earliest passions while extolling the virtues of learning to let go, the film is tonally assured enough to render a literal reading somewhat unnecessary since it so purely channels the joy that drives its main character. And despite the fact that a store that sells unicorns might be too good to be true, Larson proves it isn’t impossible to bottle up sunshine in a jar with a most enjoyable and exuberant feature directorial debut.
“Unicorn Store” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play at the Toronto Film Festival on September 12th at the Scotiabank 4 and September 15th at the Ryerson at 4 pm.