It’s rare that the stars of the year’s biggest movie reunite for an entirely separate feature film a month later, but that’s not exactly what happened with Unicorn Store, a new movie hitting Netflix on Friday. It’s the second 2019 film starring Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson; the first, Captain Marvel, will likely remain the highest-grossing movie of the year until Avengers: Endgame (definitely co-starring Larson, possibly co-starring Jackson) comes out on April 26th. Technically, though, Captain Marvel is a Unicorn Store reunion. Larson directed the film a few years ago, after she won an Oscar for Room but before she suited up as a Marvel superhero. The film debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017, and now Netflix has picked it up for wider distribution.
At first glance, Larson’s feature directorial debut bears no resemblance to the space-faring Captain Marvel, entry number 21 in the world’s biggest franchise. But for fans of Larson’s Marvel Cinematic Universe film who reacted to more than just its place in the ongoing Marvel narrative, Unicorn Store works decently well as a companion piece.
Larson plays Kit, a woman who has recently left art school, which is summed up in a brief scene of her producing a colorful, heartfelt installation painting when she’s supposed to be creating a self-portrait, and receiving failing marks from a dour proctor. The quick-hit visual storytelling of this moment should be evocative, but it’s portrayed with such cartooniness (an art program that grades both by committee and by check-box?) that the movie seems more interested in the symbolism of an establishment rejection than in any specific ideas about taste or conformity that Kit is flouting.
Regardless, she’s ejected from the program, so she heads home to stay with her relentlessly upbeat, discouraging-via-endless-encouragement parents (Joan Cusack and Bradley Whitford). She gets a temp job at a public relations firm that looks more like an advertising and / or design company, and she tries her best to fit into the depressing world of grown-ups, despite her propensity for bright colors, splashes of glitter, and unicorns.
During her reluctant, awkward attempt to prove herself at adulting, Kit receives a mysterious invitation beckoning her to a location labeled “The Store.” She arrives to find an unnamed salesman (Samuel L. Jackson) who promises that if she’s interested, he can provide her with a real, live unicorn. All she has to do is prove that she’s ready for the responsibility by building the animal a proper habitat. This mix of a fantastical premise and quotidian details — Kit spends a fair amount of time consulting on her parameters with hardware store employee Virgil (Mamoudou Athie) — owes a little to magical-realist short fiction (the kind dismissed in some corners as amateurish and unserious) or perhaps Charlie Kaufman.
With a childhood dream potentially about to become a reality, Kit starts to feel genuinely engaged and motivated. That’s where Unicorn Store intersects with Larson’s bigger movie. In Captain Marvel, Larson’s Carol Danvers is a human with alien superpowers and no memories of her life on Earth. When she returns to her home planet, she has to reacquaint herself with who she was before she received awe-inspiring powers and alien warrior training. Kit, meanwhile, is returning to her childhood home and interests, trying to reconcile who she might become as an adult with who she was a whimsical, hopeful young person.
Notably, both characters face gendered expectations in the process. Carol’s alien mentor (Jude Law) tells her she needs to control herself and repress her emotions — essentially saying that she needs to become an ass-kicker on stereotypically male terms. No one in Unicorn Store explicitly tells Kit that her interest in stereotypically girly things is an indication of arrested development, but based on her lack of friends at the movie’s outset, her interests are clearly more isolating than, say, the habits of the average Judd Apatow-style 25-year-old goof-off who just wants to smoke pot and hang out with his buddies.
This unspoken contrast explains why, like Carol Danvers, Kit doesn’t fully resist the pressure to change. Male-focused comedies about emotional immaturity and late-bloomer growing up tend to wait until the final stretch for the protagonist to give proper adulthood a shot. Unicorn Store has Kit giving in to the pressure within 20 minutes of screen time. It’s a smart touch.
It’s easy to see what drew Larson to this material and what a refreshing movie it could have been. But the strangest thing about Unicorn Store’s self-conscious quirkiness is how Larson, a versatile and emotionally open actor, feels absolutely adrift playing this character, and not in a quarter-life crisis sort of way. Late in the film, Kit refers to her own bratty behavior, but not much of that actually shows up on-screen, apart from a few impatient flare-ups with her parents. Frankly, the movie could have used more aggression, more unpleasantness, and more stubbornness from Kit to clarify who, exactly, this isolated, unicorn-obsessed artist is supposed to be.
Larson plays Kit as charmingly self-conscious. (“Sorry, these are compliments,” she clarifies during her first awkward conversation with Virgil.) But she’s also stubbornly immature, sweetly innocent, and alien enough to be sincerely unfamiliar with the basic rituals of office drudgery. The movie focuses on what unicorns meant to Kit as a child, but it doesn’t give her a convincing life beyond the frame of the movie, whether that might involve her childhood, her experiences at school, or something else entirely. This makes it difficult to understand why, sexism notwithstanding, tokens of Kit’s childhood are supposed to automatically brand her a social outcast, rather than, say, the potential proprietor of a lucrative Etsy store.
This kind of muddled characterization is usually more the fault of the filmmakers than the performers; in this case, it may indicate that Larson isn’t giving a bad performance so much as not directing herself particularly well. In her scenes with Athie or Jackson, both she and the movie feel a little more relaxed, more recognizably human.
But the movie constantly grasps for more than its surface charms. In Captain Marvel, it was refreshing to see Jackson, so often in wily-old-mentor mode, play a younger version of Nick Fury who isn’t in the movie to dispense advice to Carol Danvers. Jackson and Larson are still enjoyable to watch in Unicorn Store, and Jackson’s nameless salesman doesn’t exactly mentor Kit, but he doesn’t do much else, either. Without the specific casting, his part would amount to almost nothing. Come to think of it, this is true of almost every role in the movie.
It may feel reductive to look at Unicorn Store in terms of its more famous big cousin, even though Netflix almost certainly picked up Unicorn Store for release because Captain Marvel was headed for theaters. But Captain Marvel, for all its obligatory MCU world-building, stands on its own better than this rickety little unicorn stable. Unicorn Store does have moments of satirical connection, like the promotional image Kit’s company creates to sell a vacuum to modern women: an attractive woman, half-dressed and holding a baby, while vacuuming. The world, the movie seems to be saying, expends a lot of energy on blithely incoherent messages to women, based on half-baked ideas rather than their actual experiences. As it turns out, Unicorn Store does the same thing.
Unicorn Store begins streaming on Netflix on April 5th, 2019. Availability in other countries may vary.