Samuel L. Jackson and Brie Larson share the wonder of some very odd things in 'Unicorn Store.' (Netflix)
"Bringing a unicorn here is not an easy or inexpensive endeavor. You have to be the right sort of girl."
The right sort of girl.
The backbone of Brie Larson's offbeat directorial debut, the comedy Unicorn Store, is the idea of what it means to be the right sort of girl. Larson plays Kit, a woman pushing 30 who lives with her parents and favors an aesthetic heavy on rainbows, glitter and—yes—unicorns. And after she receives a couple of mysterious magical letters, she finds herself in the company of a man who calls himself The Salesman (Samuel L. Jackson). He's the one who says these words, who tells her that she's in line for a unicorn of her own. But she has to earn it. She has to be stable. She has to make a home for it. She has to be an adult, ironically, to be the right companion for a unicorn.
Not everyone finds Kit's eccentricities appealing, to say the least. She flunks out of art school after completing an exuberant self-portrait at which her teacher silently frowns. This sends Kit into a tailspin, and she resolves to change herself. She will not dress in rainbow colors, she will not use glitter, and she will be serious at all times as she undertakes a career as an office temp at a marketing agency. Larson's portrayal of Kit cosplaying as an adult is funny and weird in just the right way, and of course, of course, this phase can't last. Because she gets that note. And she begins to long for that unicorn. But how does she prove she's the right sort of girl, and how does she make a life in the real world while being someone who can convince a magic man with tinsel in his hair that she should own a unicorn?
Tasked with building her potential unicorn a place to call home, Kit meets up with a hardware store employee named Virgil. Virgil is played by the fabulous Mamoudou Athie, who played Grandmaster Flash in The Get Down, starred opposite Elizabeth Olsen in the Facebook Watch show Sorry For Your Loss, and appeared in Patti Cake$. He's a disarmingly naturalistic actor who has never for a moment seemed less than utterly believable, and here, he brings a crucial grounding to the story. As Virgil and Kit get closer, Athie has a very hard line to walk. If Virgil seems too credulous of what sound like Kit's fanciful ideas, then the risk of her placing her trust in him will be deflated, but if he seems too dismissive or patronizing, he will be ruined, an obviously unsuitable partner for a woman who will probably always believe some things that sound a little ... weird. There is a scene in which Virgil's fondness for Kit collides with some of the things she says and believes about unicorns, and Athie's face silently tells a whole story in which you can see his own longing to meet someone and the clash of his rational brain and his more whimsical feelings.
It's worth noting and quite conspicuous, I think, that Samuel L. Jackson here is playing a person who's magical, and he is black, so it's easy to see connections between this role and the dreaded "Magical Negro" trope. I'm certainly not in a position to adjudicate how the film handles that for everyone. But in this case, the role seems particularly right for Jackson, who is playing against type as a literal unicorn salesman. It doesn't feel like a generic role or a generic performance. The kind of funny it is to see Jackson in these scenes wouldn't be the same with anyone else, partly because of a persona he has cultivated. Jackson and Larson had also worked together in Kong: Skull Island and would again in Captain Marvel, so it may be as simple as a chemistry that proved durable. Moreover, tropes of this kind are often accompanied by a failure to cast black actors in other, non-magical roles in the story, which isn't the case here.
But wait! We haven't even talked about the fact that Kit's long-suffering parents are played by Bradley Whitford and Joan Cusack! If only every pair of long-suffering parents were played by those two. Between them and the Julia Sweeney/Daniel Stern pairing in Shrill, we've rarely had such good choices when it comes to imperfect moms and dads. As with Annie in Shrill, Kit is given dimension and allowed grace throughout the story of her very imperfect but sturdy family connections.
This is not a movie for everyone. Kit is what a Manic Pixie Dream Girl would be like if the story were actually about her, if her quirks and energy and flights of fancy mostly affected her life, not someone else's. Her style, for sure, is what a lot of people would refer to as "twee," and that's if they felt generous. It's the kind of thing, particularly from an adult woman, that can carry the stink of affectation, of a persona adopted to seek attention with whimsy. It is Larson's performance and Samantha McIntyre's script that make it clear that no, this is really Kit. This is really her heart, and this is what makes her happy. For a unicorn, she's precisely the right sort of girl. So why does she feel like she needs to change?
It's worth noting that out of all the women's empowerment narratives about style that are currently popular, ones that emphasize freedom to be aggressively girly are surprisingly rare. Not punky-girly, and not pop-diva-girly, and not pinup-girly, but ... sparkle-rainbow girly. Not for the purposes of performance, but just because that's a person's source of joy. That's what makes her feel like herself, the same way other women might adopt goth or punk or androgynous or retro styles. It's interesting to see a film dare you to dismiss this as simply a style that's too annoying for a person to have. If I can wear army boots, it asks, why can't I walk through glitter until it covers the bottoms of my feet? Why can't my self-portrait be a rainbow? Why can't I love confetti the way someone might love burning incense?
Unicorn Store is weird and funny, sweet and fearless, and it's another opportunity to see a fine young actress at work. Furthermore, Athie is one of the best young romantic comedy leads currently working (catch him in Jean of the Joneses as well if it ever comes around), and who doesn't need more chances to see Samuel L. Jackson in brightly colored suits?