Review of I Believe in Unicorns (2015). United States, 80 min. Written and Directed by Leah Meyerhoff. Starring Natalia Dyer, Peter Vack, Julia Garner, Amy Seimetz, and Toni Meyerhoff.
“Welcome to the future. It’s just like the present, but more fucked up.”
This sounds like a line from any coming-of-age film, but as soon as flash frames, stop motion, and kinetic montage come into play, any viewer can tell they are in for a ride that is not common box-office fare. Each narrative and coming-of-age experience is different — I often wonder why we are frequently sold the same spin-off of a narrow series of tried and true tropes. Spanning from the usually male-centered, focused on popularity and social success; a narrative that appears to focus on a kid from the “wrong side of the tracks”; some kind of dime store riff on Romeo and Juliet wanna be love; or worse yet, bullying that operates under the guise of initiation in a long con that ends badly. I Believe in Unicorns subverts these common go-to specs and presents its audience with a complicated, fragile, and curious 16-year-old female protagonist who stands on the edge of herself. Peering out of the darkness, looking for light, Davina (deftly played by Natalia Dyer) is a girl not just finding her image but actively engaged in making it. She is the sole caretaker of her mother Toni (played with subtle yet tangible efficacy by Toni Meyerhoff, Leah’s mother), who has multiple sclerosis and is wheelchair-bound, and it is quickly obvious that she pines to be anywhere but where she currently is. Davina’s teenage conundrum: home as a prison and the idea that a punk prince charming can whisk her away to a much more beautiful and magical place. When she tells Cassidy (Julia Garner at the height of sensitivity emoted by a caring friend) that “he’s a good kisser,” the reply is “how good?” This query is met with a soft, intense kiss on the lips.
Visceral, tactile, and magical — I Believe in Unicorns takes coming-of-age by the throat and makes it bleed glitter. All of the complexities, problems, pitfalls, errors, and joys of being young, in love, and impressionable are alternately pulled into focus and obscured. Unicorns calls on your most heartrending teen moments — abuse by someone who you thought loved you, a violent and unexpected turn to anger, and a release of what you thought you wanted for what you actually need. Though some have claimed the 80-minute length “too short to fill the feature slot” or complained that it is “too film school” (whatever that means), in the duration of her first feature Meyerhoff gives me hope for the resurgence of American independent cinema. Because we hardly ever get to see an imaginative and smart female protagonist, let alone peek into her psyche and experience her story on her own terms, this film is incredibly important. Had someone else made it, certain elements would, no doubt, be different — it may not have resulted in the showcasing of experimental tendencies that heighten its playfulness and sadness. I Believe in Unicorns serves as an incredible calling card for Meyerhoff — it proves she can do just about anything with the hybridization of experimental and narrative form.
Alive with analog sensibilities — public phones, a Polaroid camera — and shot on super-16mm, I Believe in Unicorns marks a time that seems not so long ago for Gen Xers, but likely reads as a pre-tech period piece for millennials. Similarly, the sense of time as it expands and passes is different. As the film transitions from coming-of-age into an outlaw road movie, the cinephile in me can’t discount flashes of Terrance Malick’s Badlands, Allison Anders’ Gas, Food Lodging or David Lynch’s Wild at Heart. Meyerhoff paid her dues in film school and it shows. Director of photography Jarin Blaschke pulls off a tightrope performance between indie/art house narrative style and experimentation that lingers long after the film ends. Having shot the film on super-16mm makes all the difference — the timing was right and the production even managed to obtain most of the film stock through donations. The casting of Meyerhoff’s mother in the film was conscious and necessary. This element of the story was very much drawn from her experience. As a result, the authenticity in casting a person with MS, as opposed to an able-bodied actor was a deal breaker. Rightly so — the viewer can not only see but also feel the actual weight of her limbs that have filled with blood through the decades as Davina helps her onto the couch to rest or as she cuts tomatoes in the kitchen. As if this isn’t impressive enough, Meyerhoff also managed to wow Allison Anders (Gas, Food Lodging, Mi Vida Loca) with her script and onboard her as an Executive Producer. This is the stuff indie film dreams are made of and a realization that should reinforce hope for the future of complicated, risk-taking, female-centered cinema.
Young love is full force and volatile. It thinks it knows the truth but has only scratched the surface. Davina and Sterling’s disconnect is clear when he says, “You’re so beautiful,” and immediately she adds — knowing that he won’t — “and smart.” The realization is on the horizon that what Davina expects to happen is not the reality she finds herself in: easy enough for anyone to relate to. The world expands and contracts around her in montage sequences underscoring narration. We hear her innermost thoughts, dreams, hopes, anxieties — in many ways they are universal. Meyerhoff touches a country of the mind, heart, and soul with Unicorns that is rare, wild, and free. Here we are able to revisit our misspent youth, hastily made decisions that we thought were going to provide a startling paradigm shift, and at the end we are somehow gifted safe passage back to calmer waters to begin again. Not that everything is as it should be, but we have the luxury of returning virtually unscathed from a trip and experience that has changed our perception for all time. Like Davina, we are a bit wiser for the wear and tear, yet manage to maintain a youthful, curious glimmer that for some faded so long ago. We can see the future and know that it is closer than our past: that makes all the difference for a girl growing up in a world that can expand and collapse so quickly. This film will touch anyone who has a teenage girl in their life, has been one themselves, or has ever searched for something meaningful.