Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson’s second collaboration to debut in 2019 is about as different from Captain Marvel as a movie can get. A quirky indie dramedy in the dated mold of Little Miss Sunshine and Garden State, Unicorn Store casts Larson as Kit, a pastel-clad, glitter-worshiping wannabe artist who comes unmoored after failing out of art school and moving back in with her bemused parents (Joan Cusack and Bradley Whitford). Resigned to the tedium of a whimsy-free adult life, Kit dons her mom’s dowdy suit for a temp office gig where the boss is a #MeToo story waiting to happen.
That’s when the (literal) magic begins. Kit receives a series of anonymous notes, culminating in an invitation to “The Store”—which turns out to be a deserted church that has been repurposed as a fantasia of Stefon-club proportions. The only other soul in the building is “The Salesman”: Jackson in a bubblegum-pink suit, with tinsel in his hair. This quasi-mythical figure has come to help Kit procure something she’s yearned for since childhood: a real, live unicorn to love her unconditionally. She simply has to perform a few tasks to prove she’s worthy of receiving it.
Like its plot, Unicorn Store is suffocatingly precious. And it’s a shame, because it happens to be Larson’s directorial debut—one I’d looked forward to as both a fan of her acting and a viewer who’s always happy to see talented young women jumping into powerful creative roles. (Larson was 26 when the movie premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival; that it’s just now riding Captain Marvel’s cape-tails to Netflix speaks volumes about the first impression it made.)
But the fault here isn’t chiefly Larson’s. In fact, she shows some instincts that should serve her well in her future behind-the-camera work. There are funny set pieces: Kit’s Vegas-style presentation of a vacuum-cleaner marketing campaign, at her day job, climaxes with the freshly bedazzled home appliances blowing confetti onto a conference room full of unsmiling suits. Anchored by Larson’s determinedly un-cute performance, the cast counteracts the mawkishness of the story as much as seems possible. Even a veteran filmmaker would’ve struggled to adequately dilute the saccharine in screenwriter Samantha McIntyre’s late-blooming art-weirdo coming-of-age story.
As it is, Unicorn Store only ends up infantilizing millennials and, when it comes to Jackson’s ethereal character, playing into offensive tropes. Populated by such irritating caricatures, the movie works against its own solid (if not exactly novel) message: that art and fantasy are as crucial in adulthood as they are when we’re kids. Watching Kit chase unicorns, it’s hard not to wish she would just trade her paintbrush for a briefcase and grow up already.