Unicorn Store is the story of a likable, sunny, slightly grating (in an oblivious, self-involved way) creatively-stifled Millennial who, having suffered a painful creative setback in their initial stab at adulthood, has retreated back to her parents’ home to rethink their lives. She ultimately finds herself at a crossroads between selling out and turning into a boring normie or becoming the person they still want to be but this time in the right way by dealing with the underlying issues that hobbled them the first time through. The creative rebirth comes by way of quasi-Wes Anderson and/or Michel Gondry-esque magic realist intervention tied to a twee encapsulation of late ‘80s, early ‘90s consumer pop-nostalgia.
You’re not alone if your reaction to that description is: “I feel like I’ve watched that movie dozens, possibly hundreds of times involving some combination of Zack Braff or Shia LeBouf!” Some stars find a niche, and between Captain Marvel and this Brie Larson seems to have found hers. The Larson niche is formula genre movies you’re tired of seeing dudes make fifty-million times but maybe you’d be interested in again if they centered the story on the plucky, understated energy of an all-American sandy-blonde with a signature look somewhere between ‘90s Meg Ryan and your mom’s hot-but-not-in-an-overwhelmingly-distracting-way divorced friend from Book Club.
Larson, who also makes her directing debut in this Netflix-backed dramedy feature, stars as the aforementioned stunted artist; a performatively adorkable woman-child whose art fails to impress on the gallery scene because her aesthetic more or less begins and ends at “Thrift Store Lisa Frank.” Stuck back with her overly-earnest At Risk Youth Counselor parents all too eager to offer generic life advice and going through the genre-mandatory back and forth between “should I regress and dig out my childhood toys or put on a suit and get an office job?” while the film similarly vacillates between being White Girl Sorry To Bother You and Needful Things But Happy.
It’s the second one that wins out. Larson is summoned to the mysterious “THE STORE” by Samuel L. Jackson’s Willy Wonka-esque proprietor, who claims he will fulfill her unrealized childhood wish of owning a real live unicorn. All she has to do is build a “stable” for the animal, clean up her home life to provide a safe psychic space, getting her professional act together, etc. As near as she can tell, he’s for real and so (presumably) will be the unicorn, and that promise gives her the confidence to not only perform the preparatory tasks she’s assigned but also to stand up for herself at her temp office job and make a go of trying to take on an advertising presentation using her neglected art skills. It also drives her to maybe strike up something like a romance with the awkward but friendly carpenter she hires to help construct the stable.
You can pretty much guess where this is all going, including what she’s supposed to really be learning from all of this in terms of growing up on her own terms but in the right way and even what the resolution is likely to be. Your guess will probably be spot on. Hyper-originality isn’t really the film’s strong suit and — to its credit — part of Unicorn Store’s agreeably grounded, bittersweet humor is that it’s honest but not in a mean-spirited way. The movie acknowledges that both its heroine’s creations and her persona are a bit on the familiar side — and that it’s fairly easy to see why people find this reflexively self-pitying 30-something woman with a Rainbow Brite life philosophy somewhat tiresome.
Still, one doesn’t hopscotch from a Best Actress Oscar to billion dollar international box-office champ and hottest new Avengers franchise by not being good at this stuff. While Unicorn Store is a slight endeavor that might have been better suited to a short, Larson’s sneaky slow-build charisma carries the proceedings a long way. She’s a very gifted comedian, and her vulnerability and sincerity make the dramatic moments pay off much more strongly than you’d expect them to in context. And while a limited budget is in evidence throughout, she also demonstrates a sharp eye and solid sense of pace as director.
I doubt Unicorn Store will change anyone’s life (or that it’s the sort of thing that would exist at all if not for “Hey so Captain Marvel says she wants to do this Unicorn movie so … that’s what we’re doing!”) but it’s cute and charming and it mostly won me over.