Unicorn Store, Netflix, review: Brie Larson's twee directorial debut is no marvel

Brie Larson and Samuel L Jackson in Unicorn Store - Netflix
Brie Larson and Samuel L Jackson in Unicorn Store - Netflix

Dir: Brie Larson; Starring: Brie Larson, Samuel L Jackson, Mamoudou Athie, Joan Cusack, Bradley Whitford, Hamish Linklater, Martha MacIsaac. PG cert, 92 mins.

The recent ubiquity of Captain Marvel star Brie Larson has helped make every bit of ephemera from her on-camera past suddenly valuable, quality be damned. From viral clips of her short-lived tweenage pop career to her pre-Oscar appearance in a bizarre and only vaguely racist musical set and filmed in India, the newfound unearthing of Larson’s intriguingly oddball Hollywood history now includes her 2017 directorial debut, a film left on the shelf following dire reviews out of festivals two years ago, but this weekend materialising comfortably in your Netflix queue.

But as delayed as Unicorn Store has been, its tone and storytelling feels even more archaic, very much indebted to a cinematic era in which Zach Braff was a hot indie film commodity and every twee coming-of-age fable had its own hand-drawn credit sequence.

Larson is Kit, a directionless young woman recently kicked out of art school for failing to impress her stern professors. Forced to abandon her artistic dreams and move back in with her exhaustingly upbeat parents (Joan Cusack and Bradley Whitford), she finds temporary work at an advertising agency and begins to receive odd, childlike invitations to a mysterious ramshackle warehouse known as “The Store”. Filled with hay, confetti and ice cream, and presided over by a glitter-strewn Samuel L Jackson, The Store also sells unicorns, creatures once omnipresent in Kit’s childhood imagination, with one due to be taken home by Kit if she proves herself to be a worthy owner.

How Kit justifies her own unicorn-owning pedigree is as thinly outlined as Samantha McIntyre’s script is distractingly unfocused, piling subplots onto subplots and needlessly over-complicating its central message of the benefits of embracing your inner child.

But it’s rescued by a sunny, open and intensely likeable Larson, who, as proven in the likes of 21 Jump Street and Trainwreck, makes for a winning light-comedy star, earning the film’s biggest laughs via a bit of eccentric choreography deployed while trying to sell a vacuum cleaner to her ad agency bosses. She demonstrates a real knack for physical comedy, especially in the manic, rehearsed energy she puts into her movements for Kit’s first day of work, as if she’s a little girl doing her best job at pretending to be a powersuit-clad businesswoman.

Her work behind the camera isn’t quite as striking, but generally competent. She scores points for being the rare actor-turned-director to resist the lure of making her first feature needlessly showy, but the film’s relatively staid visuals oddly serve as a hindrance here rather than an asset. Despite its narrative reliance on magic and colour (Unicorns! Streaks of paint! Rainbows!), Larson conjures a curiously flat world, one only infused with a bit of otherworldly sparkle in Kit’s costume design and styling, full as it is with pastel pajamas and “GIRLPOWER” necklaces.

Unicorn Store will still have its supporters; the film often feels artificially generated to appeal to anyone who ever had a Deviantart account and today enthusiastically retweets cloying platitudes about once being a “gifted child” yet struggling in their early-to-mid-twenties. The tooth-achingly sweet earnestness of Kit’s love interest (a distractingly sleepy Mamoudou Athie) and the film’s ambiguous if ultimately unfulfilling allusions to mental illness feel similarly algorithm-friendly.

But it’s more often than not something of a slog, its insights shrug-worthy and its tone jarring in its shifts from candy-coloured whimsy to weepy dramatics. As for Larson and Jackson, so fun together in Captain Marvel, their scenes here are decidedly muted, with Jackson at his most rote and Larson forced to repeat the same notes of cynical confusion. If anything speaks to the flatness of Unicorn Store, it’s that the effects-ridden, high-budget Disney movie they were in somehow allowed the pair to be so much more human.

Unicorn Store is available on Netflix from April 5