When “Unicorn Store” opens, Kit (Brie Larson) is determinedly completing a painting awash in “My Little Pony” style colors and glitter, with a more is more approach that literally leaves the wall around her canvas splattered with her work. It’s an unintentional metaphor for the film itself, which alternately overreaches and underperforms as both a quirky comedy and indie dramedy, but nonetheless leans into both fairly hard. “Unicorn Store” marks a couple of firsts — a directorial debut by Larson, the first produced feature script by Samantha McIntyre (“Married,” “Bored To Death”) — and has the flaws that come with that territory. However, while the film may not entirely hang together, the stakes are low, and its bright spots point toward a promising future for the behind the camera talent.
A first glance at Kit tells us everything we need to know about the young woman, who finds herself in a rut, living at home with her affectionate parents (the always winning Joan Cusack and Bradley Whitford): wearing clothes that a grade schooler would sleep in, and favoring Pop Tarts for breakfast, she’s somewhat stuck in arrested development. But this is the kind of movie where someone with Kit’s idiosyncrasies is simply misunderstood, and just not appreciated by the squares of the world. Her outsider status is cemented when she takes a job at PR&R (ha), an advertising agency of endless cubicles, where Kit’s instinctual refusal to slide into the expectations of her subordinate, gendered assigned gig earns her the awkward attentions of her boss, Gary (Hamish Linklater).
Kit’s attempt to slide into the routine of stereotypical normal life gets intriguingly sidetracked when she starts receiving stylishly personalized invitations to The Store. Curiosity piqued, she heads to the mysterious location where she meets The Salesman (Samuel L. Jackson). Part Willy Wonka, and part Mr. Magorium, the outrageously attired proprietor promises that Kit can see her childhood dream of getting a real life unicorn come true, only if she makes herself worthy of such an animal. So she’ll have to complete some odd, but character growing tasks, and along the way, her earnest charm lands the help of hardware store clerk Virgil (the effortlessly lovely Mamoudou Athie), who winds up believing in her, perhaps more than she does herself. Meanwhile, Kit is also preparing a presentation for Mystic Vacuum at PR&R, where she’ll learn an entirely different lesson about being grown up.
It’s all as saccharinely whimsical as it sounds, but that tone is offset by measured dramatic beats that keep the story from completing floating away. Strangely, however, the tones never seamlessly mesh, so “Unicorn Store” is always jarringly shifting in its mood. And given the narrative is the stuff of a thousand Sundance movies before it (and it’s a bit of a surprise the film didn’t premiere there), without a clean execution, it only makes its familiar elements harder to engage with on their own terms. However, even if Larson doesn’t entirely succeed in her first time out as director, she does show an excellent hand at staging, with a centrepiece sequence revolving around Kit’s Mystic Vacuum presentation being a true highlight. The star and filmmaker is also supported with strong work from her supporting cast, and a bubbly understated score by Phantom Planet member Alex Greenwald. However, perhaps most impressive of all is Larson’s casual, diverse approach to populating her cast. From Jackson to Athie to Karan Soni (as her dorky neighbor Kevin), it’s truly warming to see a production so unshowily progressive, proving that increasing on-screen representation for minorities isn’t all that difficult.
Whether or not Kit finds out if the unicorn is real, you’ll have to see for yourself, but the overall lesson about finding a space for innocence in a grown up world that can be cruel doesn’t quite connect. But in the telling of it, we’re privileged to see Larson make her first steps toward what should be an interesting career as a storyteller. Much like Kit, she doesn’t apologize for her ambitions and is willing to publicly stumble, which makes us root for her all the more. The titular “Unicorn Store” may be selling a fantasy, but when it comes to the movie, the reality here is that there’s enough here to admire, it feels okay to let your guard down for 90 minutes. [C+]