Premiering on Netflix this week is Unicorn Store, Brie Larson’s directorial debut. At first glance, it’s not what you’d expect from Captain Marvel herself, but in a way, that’s Larson’s secret weapon. Unicorn Store brings out a quieter kind of girl power than the galactic punching ballet that is Marvel’s latest tentpole — a power that retains a child’s wonder without sacrificing an adult woman’s agency.
In addition to directing, Larson stars as Kit, an aggressively optimistic artist who suffers from a very familiar millennial malaise. She fails out of art school for literally coloring outside the lines in vibrant and messy Lisa Frank-esque tones; she lives with her parents (delightfully played by Joan Cusack and Bradley Whitford) and endures their attempts to set her up with a more accomplished peer; she takes a temp job at an ad agency simply because, after a long day aimlessly sprawled on the couch with a box of Cheez-its, a commercial tells her to and she has no better advice to follow.
Despite the stagnation of her life, Kit never loses her imagination, and when she comes across a magical store and a wonkier-than-Wonka Samuel L. Jackson offers her a unicorn — so long as she can prove herself able to take care of it — she wholeheartedly believes him. And why not? Given the chance to fulfill a lifelong dream, Kit enthusiastically throws herself into changing her life for the sake of her unicorn, if only because the alternative is to stay still.
Of course, the unicorn is a metaphor — Kit is really proving her own self-worth to herself — but throughout the film, Kit’s belief in unicorns is never treated like anything less than completely logical. Part of this can be attributed to Larson’s direction and Samantha McIntyre’s script, but an equally important part comes from Matt Luem’s production design and Mirren Gordon-Crozier’s costuming. Even before the titular store appears, Kit’s world feels a little bit magical thanks to little background touches and truly fabulous wardrobe choices. The movie’s quirky but precise aesthetic is a few shades short of a Wes Anderson picture, but that’s a good thing. The fusion of the tangible with the wondrous lends a realism to Unicorn Store that never lets Kit’s journey feel overly childish or ridiculous.
But the real reason Kit isn’t a joke — and, importantly, why neither her parents or the new friend (Mamoudou Athie) she enlists to help her build a unicorn stable in her backyard accuse her of losing her mind — comes back down to Larson’s keen understanding of this particular character. Kit retains her innocence through adulthood, making her uniquely qualified from the start to be worthy of a unicorn — and for others to believe in her as much as she eventually believes in herself.
On the whole, Unicorn Store displays Larson’s versatility as an actor and her potential as a director. Post-Oscar win and Captain Marvel passing the $1 billion mark, one can only hope that her next directorial outing doesn’t languish unseen in a distributor-less limbo for two years as this one did (Unicorn Store premiered at TIFF in 2017 and Netflix acquired it shortly before Captain Marvel was released). Larson clearly has an eye for the camera, and the heart to tell stories that, while small, seem large. Unicorn Store would be a strong debut from any director, but from her, it not only feels strong, but right.
Further, if Unicorn Store has any indie ancestor, it’s Wristcutters: A Love Story, a film from 2006 that I have no idea how I came across but will forever be grateful that I did. Both films take a topic that should be unbearably bleak — with Unicorn Store, it’s burnout and having no sense of one’s place in the world; with Wristcutters, it’s depression and suicide — and infuses it with enough quirky imagination and pure humanity to bring out some much-needed hope.
As a millennial myself, I can safely say hope is something we desperately need right now. Our generation’s future is more uncertain than our parents’ and grandparents’, and many of us feel powerless because of it. Larson and McIntyre smartly tap into those feelings through empathetic fantasy to remind millennials that we aren’t as worthless as the world makes us feel. We can reclaim our innocence and be worthy of a unicorn, too.
Unicorn Store is now streaming on Netflix. It’s very much a treat to see.