Brie Larson‘s directorial debut, Unicorn Store, is a coming-of-age film for a generation that is “coming of age” later and for longer than generations before. It is a sympathetic exploration of the “Peter Pan Syndrome” firmly placed in the millennial experience, and without the judgmental undertones (and sometimes overtones) of films with a similar subject matter but far less empathy for the contemporary young adult experience.
While The Verge calls Unicorn Store“an odd companion piece to Captain Marvel,” in part because of the Brie Larson/Samuel L. Jackson reunion, the Netflix film pairs much better with 2012’s indie Safety Not Guaranteed or 2004’s 13 Going On 30, aka coming-of-age dramedies with a magical surrealist bend. If you’re looking to make an event of it, Unicorn Store also pairs well with Pop Tarts, glitter nail polish, and Starbucks’ Unicorn Frappucinos.
Kit (Larson) is a vaguely twenty-something young adult who just dropped out of art school and into her parent’s basement. When Kit begins to receive mysterious cards inviting her to “The Store,” they offer her an escape from the bleak world of temping, workplace harrassment, and wardrobe conformity, specifically by offering to fulfill Kit’s childhood (and, yeah, fine, adulthood) yearning to have a unicorn companion.
The Unicorn Store is run by a mysterious and eccentric Samuel L. Jackson as a salesman with a great wig and big promises. When the salesman offers Kit an opportunity to get a unicorn and the lifelong love that comes with it, the answer to Kit’s long-standing loneliness seems to be answered.
So Kit sets about making her life more suitable for a unicorn companion, the quest providing a framework with which Kit can more comfortably explore and navigate this new adult world. She meets Virgil (Mamoudou Athie), an employee at her local hardware store, and convinces him to build a stable in her backyard. In the process, the two become friends, giving Kit a taste of the companionship she’s looking for with her unicorn.
Like Captain Marvel, this is a movie that thrives on a very specific 90s-era nostalgia, albeit in very different ways. While there may not be a rocking 90s pop soundtrack, this is a movie for adults who once carried around Lisa Frank trapper keepers, sang along with the Rainbow Brite theme song, and cuddled with Care Bears. Even Kit’s name, which often sounds like “kid” when other characters’ say it, feels like a reference to the American Girl dolls that first became popular in the 90s.
The result is a movie that speaks most specifically to the middle-to-older subgroups of the millennial generation (Larson herself is 29), while also being a bit late with the message, making it feel like more of a just-period piece than a contemporary story. (Screenwriter Samantha McIntyre tells Bust that she began writing the script in 2009.) While many of the experiences explored in the film feel timeless, there is a specificity to many of the delightful references and callbacks that caters to a generation that is past the stage of young adulthood the film explores.
Unicorn Store is also a film firmly centered around the white, comfortably middle class experience. Kit seemingly has an unlimited allowance with which to build her unicorn stable, purchase a fabulous wardrobe, and buy art supplies. When she drops out of school, she is able to move back in with her parents, who are financially secure and super supportive.
That being said, while the stakes are very low, the narrative itself is self-aware. While Unicorn Store never diminishes Kit’s valid pain, isolation, and confusion, the film also populates her world with people who don’t have the same kinds of identities and experiences as her, and makes her aware of the hardships they face because of them. You know Kit is going to be fine, no matter what happens with her unicorn plans, and that makes watching this movie both less stressful and perhaps, depending on what the stakes of your coming-of-age experience looked like, more frustrating.
This is because, while the film wants us to follow Kit on this journey into the harsh realities of adulthood, the white, middle class bubble of Kit’s adult existence is one of almost child-like security. Yes, she may be trying to make it as an artist in a consumer-driven world that values art only when it can be used to sell things, but, if being an adult is equated with having to actively accept uncomfortable realities, than some people are more “adult” than others. Privilege may not buffer you from all pain, but it sure does help. It also gives you a bigger glitter budget.
We notoriously live in a cinematic age when big-budget films tend to avoid brightness and color, which makes spending time in Unicorn Store‘s glittery, yet grounded world so much fun. Unicorn Store‘s best visual moments comes when it most commits to its protagonist’s unabashedly girlishness. (This movie’s vision board would be best friends with A Wrinkle in Time‘s vision board.) The film’s most memorable visual moment comes in a confetti-filled extravaganza that, delightfully, feels like a direct, subversive callback to Jenny Rink’s Very Important Presentation in 13 Going on 30.
For a movie written and directed by women, Kit’s interpersonal world is largely defined by male relationship. While Kit has casual relationships with some of her female co-workers and some of the female campers at her parents’ group therapy wilderness program, the only developed dynamic she has with another woman is the one she has with her mom. This feels like a missed opportunity for a film that is so interested in girlhood and how girls make a successful transition into womanhood (which, at least in my experience, has involved a lot of female community, friendship, and support).
Kit’s parents, played by veteran character actors Joan Cusack and Bradley Whitford, are the highlight of this film. They manage to have both Unicorn Store‘s funniest and most heartfelt moments, seamlessly making the transition from a chuckle-worthy cariacture of overconcerned, emotionally-expressive, kale-and-quinoa-eating parents to wise and loving sources of life information for Kit in a way that feels true to real life.
Ultimately, the movie doesn’t do enough to articulate which aspects of growing up are necessary and which aspects of the childhood perspective and experience should be fought for, despite all of the pressures demanding that we let them go. However, like its protagonist, this film never claims to have all of the answers. In fact, its comfort with ambuity is one of its boldest elements.
Does Kit get a unicorn? I’m not going to tell you. The will-they-or-won’t-they of the journey to Kit’s maybe-unicorn is part of the fun of watching this movie, a promising-if-somewhat-safe debut from Larson that has some insightful things to say about the millennial coming-of-age experience, is filled with brilliant performances, and (at a swift 92 minutes) never wastes your time.