Brow Beat

How Brie Larson’s Unicorn Store Botches Its Coming-of-Age Lesson

Samuel L Jackson in a pink suit and Brie Larson in a flowered shirt stare off into the distance.
Samuel L. Jackson and Brie Larson in Unicorn Store.

In Brie Larson’s muddled directorial debut, Unicorn Store, her character’s coming of age is catalyzed by a weirdly harsh, skewed dictum: that she quit being a selfish brat. A whimsical twentysomething with a taste for painting with glitter, Kit (Larson), an art-school dropout now living in her parents’ garage, is accused of lacking a supportive home environment, which happens to be a key criterion for achieving her childhood dream of having a unicorn of her very own. She’s also prone to petulance, which could spell disaster for her adoption chances—and her future. Larson’s wide brown eyes scrunch up in indignation as Kit protests, “I don’t have negative energies. I have loving energies. And this unicorn is going to love all of my energies!”

Currently streaming on Netflix, the movie, which was written by Samantha McIntyre, observes Kit’s maturation through a pastel-tinted lens. While working a menial temp position at a public relations agency, Kit receives a bedazzled invitation to a place called the Store. Is it a prank? A scam? Her mystical destiny? Awaiting her at what turns out to be a warehouse festooned with streamers is the Salesman (Samuel L. Jackson), who, offering sage counsel in a snazzy purple suit, fits squarely into the problematic “Magical Negro” trope. The Store, this fairy godfather figure explains, is only for Kit. And it traffics in exactly what she’s looking for.

Kit has had a lifelong obsession with unicorns, a fact that Larson makes abundantly clear. The movie opens with a home video montage of little-kid Kit doing all sorts of unicorn-related activities: watching them on an animated TV show, clutching a stuffed animal version, doodling one on red construction paper. The Salesman’s offer is a gleeful fantasy in which grown-up Kit, bewildered by the grim realities of adult life, can take solace. The catch is that in order to lock down the adoption, Kit has to prove that she can handle it by, well, acting like a grown-up.

As a character, Kit is silly and hazily drawn. She speaks with an obnoxious baby voice and scans as painfully naïve, placing her trust in a smarmy boss at the PR firm despite his repeated come-ons. Larson does her best to transmute Kit’s cutesiness into charisma, her huffiness into moxie, but she only partially succeeds, leaving a rough outline of a young girl who’s by turns giddy and crabby, going about her quaint life with her head in the clouds.

But when it comes time for Kit to grow up, it isn’t her innocence that she’s expected to shed, but something else that seems to come out of left field: her supposed selfishness. “Has anyone ever told you you are a very selfish person?” the Salesman sniffs at Kit in the Store one day. “You think everything in this store is for you?” It’s a bizarre accusation given that, whether you view the Store as imagined or not, everything inside truly is there for Kit. Kit could stand to acquire some maturity and common sense—maybe, for instance, stopping to check whether the unicorn peddler with the confetti in his hair is a legitimate sales associate—but altruism doesn’t feel like the core virtue that she’s lacking.

Around the same time as her confrontation with the Salesman, Kit gets into a series of fights that isolate her even further. What starts off as a warm and fuzzy “truth circle” with her parents escalates into an argument, and a similar clash ensues with her preternaturally sympathetic love interest, Virgil (Mamoudou Athie). Both of the fights are provoked by Kit’s single-minded pursuit of her unicorn, which you could chalk up to tenacity or vision—but selfishness? It becomes a strange case of the movie placing its heroine in a crazy situation and then scolding her for playing along.

After this trio of conflicts—with the Salesman, her parents, and Virgil—Kit tries to make some changes. She draws devil horns on a picture of the art school professor who disparaged her work and then proceeds to give an absurdly glittery presentation at the firm where she’s temping. In these instances, Kit doesn’t feel either more or less selfish, or even more or less stubborn, than she was before. In fact, you could regard her renewed will to practice that same babyish aesthetic—which is mirrored in the sparkly look of the unicorn store—as a perpetuation of the very thing the movie told us was bad.

Long before Captain Marvel, Larson built her brand around empowering young women. Over her years in the public eye, the Oscar-winning actress has advocated for female film critics, been an early organizer of Time’s Up, and shown a longtime devotion to improving, increasing, and diversifying female stories. Calling Kit selfish mars the positivity of that message, reframing her individuality as a kind of unhealthy self-absorption. For the most part, Unicorn Store is a perfectly innocuous (if twee) directorial debut for Larson. It’s an indie that’s breezy, quirky, woman-centric, and it leaves the vague impression of endorsing female imagination and creativity. But what it demands of Kit, and of watchers, is confusing and discouragingly unfair.

Are we meant to believe in the unicorn store fantasy—and the innocent impulses it represents—or reject it? More broadly: Does behaving like a grown-up mean letting go of your dreams or following them? Larson is all about sending messages to young women with her art, but the message that Unicorn Store sends is foggy. It conflates brattiness and willfulness, and in doing so bungles its self-love credo. By the end, you can practically see the gears of Larson’s earnest intentions straining to churn out an earned resolution for her heroine, but it’s inevitably tainted by the botched coming-of-age lesson we all have to endure to get there.