Unicorn Store is stuck in limbo. One year ago today, Brie Larson’s directorial debut premiered at Toronto to the excitement of many, only to receive an indifferent shrug in response. As a result, it has yet to be picked up for distribution, and likely never will. The film stars Larson as Kit, an art school dropout in stasis. Unable, or unwilling, to grow up, she still lives with her parents and shares the same obsessions as most six-year-old girls – the colour pink, sparkles, and glitter – she’s arts and crafts gone wild. Before she resigns herself to the monotony of adulthood, Samuel L. Jackson appears like a fairy godfather with the fashion sense of Jeff Goldblum and the promise of what she wants most: A unicorn. I caught Unicorn Store at Edinburgh Film Festival (its second and probably last festival stop), and to my surprise, I fell in love fast. I laughed a lot, but I also cried – the film’s sweet sentimentality wraps around you like a blanket. It’s also a smarter film than it lets on. While it understands the comedic possibilities of a 20-something who believes in unicorns, it never treats Kit like a joke – the script maintains a subversively sharp wit.
The film came and went without buzz or distribution and was never really heard from again. It’s perplexing that Unicorn Store never found a home, considering that all the pieces were in place for even a small indie hit: an Oscar winner making her way to the director’s chair plus a star-studded cast including Samuel L. Jackson, Joan Cusack and Bradley Whitford. So what went wrong? When it bowed at TIFF, the film was quickly dismissed for its twee quirkiness and embrace-your-inner-child thesis. It draws a painful, very meta parallel to the story – Kit is chastised and mocked by her peers for her apparent immaturity. Its unabashed optimism and wonder failed to enchant critics – maybe if the film was around this year, in a time where light, inconsequential films like Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before are wholeheartedly embraced, Larson’s film may have been more readily accepted.
There were also complaints about the mesh of Samantha McIntyre’s script with Larson’s visual style as a director. For a film about magic and unicorns, there’s a lot of grey. While I can’t fault people for having a perfectly valid opinion, I think this startling disparity works. Kit’s jubilant nature is overpowering even in the suffocating hold of adulthood – the muted palette a constant reminder of the looming real world that Kit wants to avoid at all costs.
But there’s also something else. The kind of femininity on display here is not what we’re used to seeing. It’s always the “strong female protagonist”, the love interest, the hardened working woman – Kit is much more complex than that, she’s impossible to put in a box. She goes through her own coming-of-age of sorts, her determined efforts to prove herself worthy of a unicorn operate as a desperate effort to avoid growing up. It’s not until she realises that adulthood and her inner child are not mutually exclusive that she matures. She grows up on her own terms.
A quick scan of who reviewed Unicorn Store reveals something not out of the ordinary: a whole lot of white men. Of course, it’s counterproductive to suggest that only women should’ve reviewed the film, (there are negative reviews written by women) but a more balanced makeup of critics could’ve changed the conversation – and possibly the film’s fate. White male critics rate films starring women of colour lower than any other group. White men are the ones who shape the canon – it’s why the Tarantino’s and Scorsese’s of the world are considered masters, while it took Agnes Varda too f*cking long to get the recognition she deserves. Critics are partially responsible for what films get picked up by distributors, and which ones get left on the circuit. And when white men are the ones dictating the conversation, the ones creating buzz in the heightened world of the festival bubble, films like Unicorn Store get ignored. Unicorn Store is definitely not for everyone – it’s a sparkly endurance test for your capacity for quirk – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t for someone.
Distributors, please pick up Unicorn Store. It deserves to be seen.