Unicorn Store review: Brie Larson's directorial debut is a joyous celebration of femininity

Dir: Brie Larson. Cast: Brie Larson, Samuel L Jackson, Mamoudou Athie, Joan Cusack, and Bradley Whitford.

Unicorn Store isn’t the film Brie Larson – Oscar winner and Marvel hero – was expected to make as her directorial debut. It isn’t a sombre, realist drama created to showcase her range. Nor is the title a lofty metaphor for drug addiction, grief, or any other topic that would instantly legitimise her as an auteur in the industry’s eyes. It’s literally about a store that sells unicorns. And therein lies its brilliance.

The film’s release on Netflix this week is, admittedly, a piece of crafty marketing. Larson stars as Kit, an artist who dreams in shades of pastel but finds herself thrust into the corporate world after her work is repudiated by her college art professor. Although she takes up temp work to satisfy her parents, having been forced to move back in with them, her life suddenly changes when she receives a mysterious card, inviting her to the Unicorn Store and into the world of The Salesman (Samuel L Jackson). He’s here to sell her childhood fantasy: a living, breathing unicorn.

Larson and Jackson, of course, just starred in Captain Marvel, which this week crossed $1bn at the global box office. Unicorn Store offers a chance to revisit the clear camaraderie between the actors that made Carol Danvers and Nick Fury such a delightful onscreen duo. Jackson here ramps up his more mischievous qualities, clearly relishing the opportunity to rock brightly coloured suits and an afro littered with glittery streamers. Yet this feels like the opposite of a calculated career move for Larson. Working off a screenplay by newcomer Samantha McIntyre, she is clearly using her star power to tell the kind of story that normally never sees the light of day.

Admittedly, there are two very distinct ways to approach Unicorn Store. On one level, it’s a whimsical take on the coming-of-age story, as Kit’s increasingly desperate pursuit of this fantasy creature reflects her wider struggles to let go of the comfort and security of childhood. It’s a feminine spin on the many, many films we’ve seen about men who refuse to grow up. And it’s a worthy entry, with plenty of unexpected laughs the play on the universal misery of adult life. One of Kit’s work colleagues (Mary Holland) wishes her good night with: “I should go because there’s a new Dateline on tonight about professional single women getting murdered and… I should probably watch that.” Office life is depicted as a meaningless cycle of drinking coffee, making copies, and making small talk about how you’re going to die alone.

There’s also a romcom element to the story, as Kit enlists put-upon handyman Virgil (Mamoudou Athie) to help her build a stable for her future unicorn. Athie, who most recently starred across Hugh Jackman in political thriller The Front Runner, perfectly balances out Larson’s screen presence. She’s electric and wide-eyed; he’s more subdued, but with laidback confidence. It’s a tale of opposites attract that actually feels believable.

This all makes for a charming film, even if McIntyre’s script occasionally goes overboard in establishing its quirky credentials. Larson approaches Unicorn Store with such earnest emotion – both in her performance and the film’s direction – that the film quickly becomes something much more. Kit’s story, and the very existence of this film, is a joyous celebration of femininity, in the face of a society that has automatically seen anything that bears its traits as less worthy. A woman wearing pink dresses and bows would be laughed out of a corporate environment, while a man could easily run a multimillion-dollar tech firm wearing the same Batman T-shirt day in and day out.

Kit’s whole internal life is shaped by these assumptions. What elevates the film is how Larson allows this shame to seep right into her core. It changes the way she talks and stands. At work, she’s stiff and unblinking in her grey suit and button-up shirt. She offers her coworkers a few robotic half-smiles and nods of recognition. But when she’s with Virgil – someone who accepts her for who she is – she’s giddy and alive.

So, yes, Unicorn Store is about a woman who wants to buy a unicorn. But it’s also about a woman trying to break through the shame she’s been made to feel simply for being who she is. “It’s these dudes that I just tiptoe around because I think that they know so many things,” she says at one point. “They don’t. I know things.” It’s so rare to see this kind of sentiment expressed on film. And it’s good to see Larson make the most of her powers.

Unicorn Store is out on Netflix now