dir: Brie Larson
It’s a bit of a strange anomaly of a flick. It’s a so-called Netflix Original, but all that means is that when it played the film festival circuit, Netflix bought the rights to screen in when no-one else wanted to.
Perhaps they thought audiences would clamour to see it after Captain Marvel became a massive hit. But how could they have known? I mean, Larson did win an Academy award for her role in Room, but she was hardly a household name before this year. Maybe it was to build a creative relationship with her ongoing, as this is her directorial debut.
It’s unlikely that they saw it and thought “People will punch their grandmothers in the face in order to be the first to stream this goddamn movie!”
Oh, it’s quite odd. I like odd, there’s no doubt, and this is plenty odd. This is the kind of odd that I actually value Netflix for. It is the kind of thing I see or seek out of curiosity that I otherwise would never have even heard of, and I would probably only watch it on a streaming service.
I am not going to explain any further. It is what it is. It is, I hope, the flick that Brie Larson wanted it to be, the exact flick she wanted it to be. It is strange, it doesn’t follow predictable story beats, it seems to exist in our reality, and it seems to be making some points about art, about creativity and about creative people being in tension with commercial interests or profit motives, and how easily people are crushed in that altercation / dynamic.
But it’s also about a young woman who is finally going to get the unicorn she’s craved all her life, as any girl would.
I watched this with my daughter, and at one point she turned to me and asked, “So, do you think the unicorn is meant to be, like, a metaphor for something, or real?”
Honestly, even after watching the whole thing, I’m still not sure. The main character Kit is a sweet-natured artist, but the world around her keeps contriving to grind her down, just like it does for the rest of us, I guess. At art school she creates wonderful paintings, but, because she doesn’t stay within the lines, so to speak (despite the fact that they depict this literally), she is considered a failure. So, she drops out and moves back home.
People, especially artists, need jobs, so she somehow gets in with an advertising firm where a creepy executive (Hamish Linklater) takes a shine to her that has nothing to do with her artistic skills. Her parents (Joan Cusack and Bradley Whitford) seem like well meaning hippies, but they’re also as bamboozled by Kit as everyone else is.
And then this happens: Kit receives a letter out of nowhere telling her to come to The Store. She goes to a store, which seemed like it was in a completely different city from where the rest of the flick was made, and is told by a salesman (Samuel L. Motherfucking Jackson) that her unicorn is on its way. The unicorn she always dreamed of. The unicorn that was her imaginary friend as a child, the thing she has craved her entire life.
That’s not even the weirdest part of the scene, or the whole film. Debate as you might the meaning of the unicorn, or the state of Kit’s mental health, but something which completely defies human explanation is the fucking wig Samuel L. has on his head.
Okay, I’ve watched a multitude of films with Samuel L. in them. We’ve known for decades that he’s bald. In some roles he’s bald, in some he has wigs, in others he has funky wigs. In this one he has some strange kind of afro that also has an exponentially increasing amount of glittery string or something similar on it. I cannot begin to describe what the effect is like. It doesn’t at all hamper Samuel L. performance. He passionately yells all his hopeful and supportive dialogue at Kit as if he isn’t wearing a head piece full of fairy floss and random detritus.
He tells her, convinces her that she is almost ready to receive her unicorn. She just needs a few more things to be set to rights before the unicorn will be able to be given to her. It’s nearly here. Just a few more days, and just a few adjustments to her life, and everything will be perfect.
She needs to create a safe and stable environment at her home for the unicorn. Building unicorn stables isn’t within her set of skills, so, for reasons completely obscure to her (and us) and the chap she selects, a clerk at the local hardware store (Mamoudou Athie) called Virgil is tasked with the heroic duty of building a stable for her unicorn. Virgil keeps telling Kit that she’s assuming a lot just because he works in a hardware store, but also she doesn’t really tell him what creature the stable is meant for. He seems to be humouring her in a “humour her she may be dangerous” kind of way, but he eventually develops a friendship with her, being at least perhaps somewhat drawn to her child-like nature and innocent enthusiasm. From her perspective it’s also an opportunity to be friends with an actual human, something that she has had difficulty doing her whole life.
Her ulterior motive is not really ulterior, it’s open, at least to us: She really wants that unicorn and is doing a whole bunch of things in order to be worthy of that unicorn. In some ways she is treating the people around her as means to an end, but, hell, when the end is a unicorn, who wouldn’t be a bit selfish?
With the way that Larson plays the character, veering wildly between quiet joy and crushed despondency, yet with a kind of affectless remove, and given the premise, it’s hard not to think that there is an element of mental health issues, or at least a conversation about it that needed to be had. There’s this hesitancy with her parents where it seems like they’ve spent years arguing amongst themselves about what to do “about” Kit or how best to help her, but a reluctance to actually speak to her out of fear of her reaction.
The parents run these counselling camp sessions for troubled, I dunno, teens or drug addicts or something, and yet, because we’re (hopefully) on Kit’s side, we see their efforts as naïve at best or clueless at worst. The kids are encouraged to share some of their truths with the group, around a campfire, even, which is unsettling to Kit. She doesn’t really want to ‘share’ too much with her parents, because she fears them reading too much into her truths or her statements, and giving her that look that people struggling with mental health issues dread.
For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, I envy each and every one of you. It’s that fear that starts to develop in you (which you add to the library of terrors that you’ve already accumulated over time) that something you admit about yourself, or something fairly innocent that you say about yourself, if said in front of someone who knows your history, leads to them getting that look on their face where they relegate what you’ve said to the “oh, that’s because of their illness” basket, which is just so fucking crushing, so disempowering.
Or at least it can be. Okay, so she has fears about expressing herself honestly, or she sees her parents as hopeless incompetents. The other kids laugh as they tell Kit about the lies they tell in these share sessions, in order to keep Gladys and Gene happy. This convinces Kit even more that her parents are clueless stumblebums.
Later on it’s shown Gladys and Gene know the kids are lying about certain stuff, but they know how that fits in to the truths they know about these kids lives, the realities they face. They aren’t looking to disempower the kids by accusing them of lying or ranting about what their actual life circumstances are like in front of a group. They are somewhat more clued in to what the kids need, far more so than Kit gave them credit for.
There are tensions here between Kit and her parents, Kit and her friend Virgil, who struggles with being supportive and eventually thinking that he’s at best dealing with a highly gullible person, or at worst a complete nutjob. There is a tension, a fundamental one between Kit and the world, as a person and as an artist, and it’s not one that the film can resolve, and nor should it.
Her work at the ad agency, where she started as an office temp (I think), represents the hope that generally goes unfulfilled for most of us on this goddamn planet; trying to reconcile our artistic inclinations, or our desire to create, with our need for money. The vast majority of us don’t make money from what we create. That’s not how the world has ever worked for the vast majority of people. Some of us just aren’t that good at our creative pursuits, which is a harsh fact, but true nonetheless, so when we end up buried alive in the 9 to 5, it’s not that great a loss for the world. A few people are great at what they do and struggle for ages, and it either ends up being completely unrewarded or only acknowledged after they’re gone. Others struggle mightily and eventually get to a state of grace where they pick and choose what they do, and the world applauds them for it.
And then there’s people like Kit. She does what she does, she wants to bring joy to others, she wants to inspire others with her redesign of a vacuum cleaner for an ad campaign (which, as far as I could tell, involved pipe cleaners, colourful paints and maybe some crepe paper), and the world (in the form of the boorish exec and the other besuited jerks in the room) grunt and say “let’s go with a model in lingerie pushing the vacuum cleaner instead”.
The world doesn’t care, but at least the good people around us do, and applaud our efforts even when those efforts seem to be entirely in vain. It’s kind of a curious message for someone as successful and now globally known as Brie Larson to be imparting to audiences, but it’s one I applaud all the same. All anyone needs to do to see what it’s like when someone makes something that they are proud of, like this movie, and to then have the world shit on it and call you awful names, just read the reviews this goddamn film got.
I am bamboozled by the ire this flick seemed to have inspired in people, even as I understand why many would find it so unsatisfying. But it spoke (even if it mostly whispered, because it’s a very low key flick) to me, because these kinds of narratives appeal to me, the natural demographic. The ending, where the movie somehow manages to reconcile the seemingly incompatible ideas of the magical realism of what the unicorn represents to Kit, and the growth she needed to achieve in order to be the person worthy of the unicorn, was enough to move me to tears. I like these kinds of flicks and I liked this flick, though I will not pretend it was a masterpiece.
I enjoyed my trip to the Unicorn Store, where I got a bargain or four.
7 opportunities to explain Samuel L.’s wig and yet it never happens out of 10
“The most grown up thing you can do is fail at things you care about” - I would argue the only thing that proves I am an adult is superannuation – Unicorn Store