There’s a moment in Unicorn Store when frustrated Kit (Brie Larson) is coaxed to sit down at the kitchen table for a chat with her mom, Gladys (Joan Cusack). During their mother-daughter heart to heart, Gladys tells Kit, “The most grown-up thing you can do is fail at something you love.” This is the gamble Brie Larson takes on as director and star of the latest Netflix original film. Unicorn Store is not a failure by any means, but it’s also quite far from brilliance.
After being kicked out of art school, Kit moves back home to live with her parents, two camp counselors who want to see their daughter succeed in life without losing the “magic” of her off-beat personality. Taking a temp job to be more of a “grown-up,” Kit begins receiving colorful invitations from a mysterious sender inviting her to “The Store.” Leaving behind the gray blandness of her office space, Kit is tasked with creating the perfect home for a unicorn, an effort that will mean much more than building a stable.
Unicorn Store has all the right elements for the fun, whimsical, and low-stakes dramedy it tries to be, but the execution never blends those fanciful qualities together. Instead of the film’s colors working like a painting where the hues are balanced and the brush strokes aren’t even noticed, Unicorn Store operates as a base-coat canvas that needs time to dry. As a director, Larson has natural, malleable talent behind the camera, but her confidence doesn’t seem quite as strong as her potential. Unlike Larson’s lead character, her direction feels timid; she needs more of what Kit seems to have in excess: color, vibrancy, and a willingness to fail in big way. As a result, Larson’s safe direction doesn’t do much to complement Samantha McIntyre’s playful and at times wry and sardonic script. Some jokes simply don’t land and more than a few long takes feel uncomfortable, a mismatch that becomes more obvious when it doesn’t work than when it does.
During its best moments, Unicorn Store highlights a cast with splashy charisma. Everyone from Larson to Kevin Soni as Kevin — a minor, dimwitted, but funny role and welcome addition to Kit’s life — elevates the material and helps reveal the stakes of McIntyre’s narrative. Kit confronting her parents on being such a disappointment to them, for example, showcases the heart of McIntyre and Larson’s jewel-clad cinematic baby. The lighter moments are handled with childlike verve between Larson and a pink-suited, streamer-touting Samuel L. Jackson as the salesman of the aforementioned Unicorn Store. Note, this is the pair’s first collaboration before the buddy-banter laced Captain Marvel and 2017’s Kong: Skull Island.
As a film conveying the frustration and purposelessness of a wayward young adult, the script often veers away from its main thesis into the far-fetched, which prevents a deeper, more grounded reading of Kit’s personal and professional conundrums at the film’s core. One gets the sense the visual and thematic palette could have used a few more coats of paint considering the corporate, business-like milieu of Kit’s office, which never feels correctly juxtaposed against the Unicorn Store itself. Visually, there isn’t enough twinkle to effuse these moments with the proper tonal balance it’s likely intending to achieve.
When Unicorn Store gives way to its thoughtful ideas or allows its bedazzled freak flag to fly, it’s a lighthearted romp trying to say something beyond the glitter-clad exterior it purports. Its sweetness is effectively realized by the sincerity of its cast, doing their best here with material that may have needed some of the excess glitter blown off and the jewels pasted on more properly. As a director, Larson seems untested at this point, but the basics and even glimmers of brilliance are there. It’s only a matter of time before she, too, dawns a full-on sparkle suit in order to show audiences what kind of magic and challenging art she can truly create as a storyteller.