This month, over a year after its initial premiere at Toronto International Film Festival, Unicorn Store was finally released on Netflix. Here at BSG we are known advocates of Brie Larson, from her incredible work in Room to her turn as action hero Carol Danvers in Captain Marvel — but how did we feel about Larson’s directorial debut? Read on as Kelli and Mary dissect childhood fantasies, Art World expectations, and the Lisa Frank aesthetic in this conversation about Unicorn Store.
(Spoilers to follow.)
Mary: I guess the first thing we should talk about is what the movie is. I want to stress that everything I'm about to say is what's in the movie, and not hyperbole.
After flunking out of art school (and getting shamed by her fancy pants teacher who does some weird modern art), Kit moves home with her parents and tries to find a new direction in life. She takes a temp job at an ad agency, doing desk work, but she feels like it's not really being true to who she is.
Until she finds the Unicorn Store, a magical place in an old building that sells just what you need—or in this case, what Kit needs—unicorns! To prove her worth to the salesman (played by Samuel L. Jackson), Kit has to build a stable for her new friend and show that she's ready for the responsibility of housing a unicorn. She enlists a local hardware store worker to help her, and her journey begins!
The movie itself, to me, is about following your passions, being true to your own aesthetic, and being imaginative, even well into adulthood. My first q is: what did you think, Kelli? I kind of roped you into watching this after seeing it was about an art school drop-out.
Kelli: I thought this movie was really sweet, and overall I did enjoy watching it! One thing I wished was that it would have dug a little bit deeper into some of the themes it was exploring.
Mary: Yes, I definitely agree with that.
Kelli: I think it has some really fun and interesting ideas but it never quite goes past the point I expected it to (knowing the premise, of course). However, the premise alone is something to admire. It's pretty bold to make a movie with the central goal being... to adopt a pet unicorn. And I think that feeds into the ideas the movie is presenting about following your dreams and not being concerned with whether or not you're "deep" or "cool" enough for other people. This movie is not trying to be cool.
Mary: And that really is the whole idea of the movie, in a way. It's trying to be its own thing, which is what I really enjoyed about it. I mean, of course the unicorn means something else, maybe Kit's true identity or her real self or something, but the unicorn is such a great symbol for that. And the movie leads us to believe (in the end), that there actually was a real unicorn. Kit just doesn't need it anymore because she knows who she is.
Kelli: Right. I did find it interesting that they decided to show at least one other person seeing the actual unicorn.
Mary: Most importantly to me, this movie fully embraces the Lisa Frank madness of glitter and pastel colors and pink and all things stereotypically "girly." I don't know about you, but when I was a kid I tried to actively push all that away because I wanted to be "tough," but as an adult now I'm enjoying glitter and sparkly cute things. I think a lot of girls who grew up in the 90s/early 2000s might have experienced that.
Kelli: Oh, I fully leaned into the stereotypically girly aesthetic, and I continue to do so. I think my deep love of glitter and pink and Lisa Frank-esque things surpassed my need to feel tough.
Mary: That's so funny to me because I think of your aesthetic as like, cool witch!
Kelli: Hahaha! I guess I am a combination of both. I think I dress like a witch but then my bedroom is all white and lavender and fairy lights. I like to be surrounded by girly-ness.
Mary: But your personal art is very feminine in such a lovely way—I'm thinking particularly of your Sofia Coppola pictures!
Kelli: Oh yeah! And I have always had my artwork and illustrations described as "feminine," which was something that used to bother me but that now I embrace. And that’s another thing I really related to in Unicorn Store — Kit’s experience at art school.
Mary: Yes, please talk about that!
Kelli: Obviously, everything that happens in this movie is exaggerated, so the fact that Kit flunks out of art school after one show was definitely not realistic, but that's not the point. The point is that the work she was doing was not "deep" enough for the people judging it. There's one moment —probably my favorite moment in the film—where Kit is explaining to a new friend who her art professor was, and she shows this book that the professor published where he put a stick in a box and took photos of it, and that was his whole concept. And she says something along the lines of, "Yes, it might seem not that interesting now, but he was the first person to do it and it was very cutting-edge at the time!"
Mary: I laughed so hard.
Kelli: It was so spot-on re: the way we talk about art history, especially 20th century art history. There are so many boring-ass white male artists who put white paint on a white canvas and that shit is HANGING IN MUSEUMS.
Mary: That have full exhibits!
Kelli: It's just absurd, truly. And as someone who went to art school and minored in art history and learned about that kind of stuff backwards and forwards, I still feel like 70% of it is bullshit.
Mary: There's a series of paintings in the High Museum in Atlanta that are canvases in simple geometric shapes painted a solid color. I always wondered why is THAT art, but this really awesome illustration is not. It's honestly good to hear someone trained in art to say that, because it seems like a bunch of crap a lot of the time. I think Unicorn Store makes us question why art can't just be something we enjoy, something we find beautiful.
Kelli: It's a question I ask myself all the time.
Mary: And that might be different for different people!
Kelli: When I was in school, for my junior year a few friends and I set up a group exhibition called "Just Cats." We called on all of our cat-loving friends throughout the school and had them do cat-related artwork. The front of the gallery was just this huge shrine to cats that we made.
Mary: Oh my gosh I love that.
Kelli: And I remember that someone wrote in our little guest book at the front—I don't remember exactly what they said, but it was something like, "is this about anything deeper than cats?"
And the answer is NO, it wasn't! It was an expression of love through art.
Mary: HOW DARE THEY. Cats are beautiful and can represent so many things.
Kelli: That's exactly why I decided to call it "JUST" Cats. Because it's literally. Just. Cats.
Mary: Also, why can't we just ENJOY THINGS.
Kelli: Anyway, fuck that person—we had the biggest opening reception that year out of all the gallery shows. Because people want to look at cat art.
Mary: Aw yessss.
Kelli: Anyway, those experiences really made me relate to Kit and feel for her. She feels like there's something wrong with her brain because she can't "grow up" and appreciate "adult" things—but who defines what is adult?
Mary: Exactly—adulthood (and childhood for that matter) is just a set of unspoken societal rules. Kit clearly is ambitious and a hard worker and a problem solver, which are all skills we think of being vital to adulthood, yet she's labeled as childlike because she likes sparkly things, and that just doesn't make sense to me.
Kelli: Right. And I love that one of her big final moments in the film is when she goes to give her presentation at work—she is supposed to be coming up with an advertising campaign for a vacuum—and she goes all-in. And even though they don't like what she brings to them, and it reads as too "child-like," she's still really proud of it.
Mary: Yes, yes! I loved her presentation though, and I think I'm the target demographic. I would totally buy a sparkly pink vacuum over a boring one.
Kelli: Oh for sure.
Mary: She also has a compelling speech and choreographed presentation that is fun and imaginative. And her TINSEL SUIT. I read somewhere that her awesome tinsel suit was on loan from a big fashion house, and I immediately thought, see, high fashion knows what's up.
Kelli: Oh man, that's awesome. But yeah, I think her presentation was just obviously better than the other one and we were meant to understand that, which I'll also say was one of the issues I had with the film. There is definitely an oversimplification of the "bad guy" in this movie—not just Gary, her creepy boss, but the company overall.
Mary: Really, the bad guy is kind of like, unimaginative adult men. Or Boring Adults (TM).
Kelli: Which is definitely a thing that exists.
Mary: Yes, for sure. It's clear that her company equates a mild appearance with professionalism. Which isn't always true. And yeah, I wonder what kind of message we're supposed to get from Kit losing to Boring Adults?
Kelli: Yeah, same. I think part of it is understanding that people aren't always going to understand you.
Mary: And that is a reflection of them, not you.
Kelli: Right. And I do like that. Because in another movie, she would have won them over with this presentation. But the point isn't to make other people like you—it's to like yourself, to understand that you're special and worthwhile and not everyone is going to realize that, but that's okay as long as you realize it.
Mary: Yeah! It's not about her winning and pleasing others. Instead, she has to learn how to love herself.
Kelli: Which is a pretty simple message, but one that I think we forget about a lot.
Mary: I totally agree. It's the first thing we forget, and there's a big wave of pop culture encouraging people—and women especially—to embrace themselves. Like Lizzo!
Kelli: Yes! Queen Lizzo!
Mary: So good!
Kelli: What did you think of Virgil?
Mary: Well, first of all, I love him and must protect him.
Kelli: Obviously same.
Mary: He's clearly an oddball, too, which is fun. He's a different type of person from Kit, though. For most of the movie, while he's helping Kit build her stable, it seems like there's going to be a little romance brewing, BUT this movie pleasantly surprised me and didn't fully lean into that.
Kelli: Right. I think we're meant to understand that it's probably going in that direction at the end, but the romance story wasn't the point.
Mary: The movie is really about Kit learning to love herself, and we see that MAYBE that includes Virgil in the future, but for now he's there as a good friend. He has to help her on her journey.
Kelli: I also loved that his storyline sort of parallels hers - he doesn't believe that he can accomplish what she's asking him to do because he's not qualified or trained to do it. He works at a hardware store but he's not a professional carpenter by any means - he doesn't even really know how to use the tools. And she's like, so what! You can do it!
Mary: And he makes a go of it and does it! Also, he watches lots of YouTube videos to learn how, and TBH SAME. I once disassembled my sink to clean a clog by watching a video.
Kelli: Same!!! And I think that says something else about adulthood. There are a lot of things we do that nobody ever really teaches us to do. A lot of times we just have to learn how to do it, whether or not we feel prepared or ready. People who seem like "grown ups" are often just as lost as the people who feel like they don't have anything figured out. But we should approach problems with the attitude that we can figure them out. Basically, BELIEVE IN URSELF.
Mary: YES! The whole movie is telling us, BELIEVE IN YOURSELF! We're so willing to believe in other things (like unicorns), but we have trouble believing in ourselves daily.
Kelli: Believe in Unicorns. Believe in yourself.
Mary: This is the first film Brie Larson has directed, and she shopped it around for a long time before Netflix picked it up. No one wanted it. And really, that story is kind of like Kit herself in the film. Which is cool and also sad. The film deserved a theater release, in my opinion.
Kelli: Yeah! But then again, I do think that Netflix is the perfect platform for something like this.
Mary: It really is. I want people to just randomly click on it and be surprised in the best way.
Kelli: Definitely. I hope people will watch this - it is an extremely pleasant and painless way to spend an hour and a half. And it will make you want to wear lots of rainbow stripes.
Mary: I already want to incorporate some holographic tinsel into my wardrobe.
Kelli: Every time Brie Larson came on screen I told my boyfriend, "I want that outfit."
Mary: Yesssss. We both watched this with boyfriends. It is kind of neat to get that experience of watching it with a man. Because I was like, YES YES this is all true! How did Ivan feel about it?
Kelli: He liked it! He thought it was cute.
Mary: Todd liked it too! We both love Brie, and he thought it was sweet. And I agree! I think this film isn't the dark and heavy Oscar bait a lot of people praise as HIGH ART, but that's the point. It's about loving yourself and enjoying the things you enjoy, and I like that a lot.
Kelli: Me too. I look forward to seeing what Brie will make next.