On the way home after a party-ending brawl, Aysha (Jason Patel) explains to Luke (Ben Hardy) the torrid love triangle that precipitated the fight in the first place. It sounds complicated, Luke remarks, but Aysha counters that it’s actually pretty simple: “Everybody just wants what they can’t have.”
Despite her breezy delivery, the statement seems to hang in the air between them. Because by this point, both Luke and Aysha already know on some level what they want. They just have to allow themselves to have it. Unicorns traces their twin journeys toward self-acceptance with empathy, curiosity and a refreshing disregard for constricting labels.
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What stands between the central pair is not a lack of desire, but a clash of identities. Luke is a straight white single dad from Essex who scrapes together a modest living as a mechanic; Aysha is a professional drag queen from Manchester hiding her true self from her conservative Indian Muslim family. The two meet by chance when Luke stumbles into a London nightclub where Aysha is performing, and sparks fly until Luke realizes Aysha is not a cis woman.
Nevertheless, when Aysha finds herself days later in need of a ride to a gig, she asks Luke to drive her in exchange for money. Both needing the cash — and both reluctant to let go of the attraction that drew them together to begin with — they agree to turn the favor into a regular arrangement.
Directors Sally El Hoseini (who directed last year’s TIFF opener, The Swimmers) and James Krishna Floyd (the latter of whom also wrote the screenplay) sketch out Aysha and Luke’s very disparate worlds through careful, worn-in details. Luke’s is one of gray austerity, all cloudy skies and dirty fingernails and blocky concrete apartments. In contrast, Aysha’s is cast in sparkly dresses, colorful makeup, strobing club lights. Macho Luke looks as out of place among Aysha’s dolled-up friends as she does standing in stilettos at the garage where Luke works with his father (Grant Davis). Yet somehow, both look equally at home in his car under the glow of street lamps and gas stations, and it’s on those nighttime treks that a deeper bond begins to develop.
If the premise initially seems a bit contrived, any awkwardness melts away as the walls between Luke and Aysha do. There’s magnetism between them from the start, but Unicorns builds the trust and friendship between them over time. The camera tracks their increasingly comfortable body language as they navigate the party scene together, or lingers on their smiles as they chat and laugh about nothing at all off the clock.
Initially, the film prioritizes Luke’s experience ever so subtly — though both get roughly equal screen time throughout, it’s Luke the film opens on, his outsider’s perspective we follow into Aysha’s realm, and his eyes we watch steal glances away from the road at her long legs stretched out beside him. But just when Aysha seems in danger of being reduced to a manic pixie dream girl or damsel in distress in his journey of self-discovery, the balance reverses in the second hour, as she’s confronted with her own crisis of identity.
In between their evenings together, Unicorns follows Aysha and Luke into their separate lives. Luke struggles to juggle work and fatherhood, in the wake of both his breakup with his girlfriend and the death of his mother. While Luke bristles at any hint of pity — “I don’t need no fucking support system,” he snaps at one well-meaning schoolteacher — Hardy carries with him an air of melancholy that makes clear just how worn down he is by it all, and a gentleness that belies his tough-bloke exterior.
For her part, Aysha spends her daylight hours out of drag as Ashiq, working a drugstore makeup counter. It’s here that his brother, Hammad (Michael Karim), comes to warn him that “people are saying things back in Manchester about you.” What kind of things goes unsaid, though we can guess; Aysha darkly remarks to Luke at one point that for closeted South Asian drag queens like herself, “there’s only ever two outcomes, forced marriage abroad or jumping off a cliff.” On trips home, Ashiq is warm with a mother (Nisha Nayar) who eagerly asks if he’s got a new girlfriend, and stiff with a father (Ravin J. Ganatra) who’s more invested in the idea of Ashiq as a dutiful son than he is in getting to know that son on his own terms. Aysha may literally be a performer, but Patel’s body language makes clear that it’s Ashiq who’s the act.
In broad strokes, Unicorns follows a fairly straightforward romantic-drama narrative path: Two people meet, fall in love, then face obstacles before deciding to finally be together, or not. And it’s easy to envision a more conventional version of this story that plays out in sappier terms, fetishizing the obvious differences between the two characters to get to some heavy-handed moral about the power of acceptance or something. Unicorns, thankfully, is more interested in transcending lines than defining them. Though both leads are made to reconsider who they truly are and what they truly want, there’s no attempt to box in Luke’s sexuality or Aysha’s gender with labels. Nor is the film much interested in drawing any sweeping conclusions about the communities each belongs to — although its matter-of-fact acknowledgments about the everyday stresses of working-class life or the violent hostility faced by gay and trans people are statements in themselves.
All of that is simply context for the drama’s true concern, which is this specific connection between these specific people. That it tells with patience, compassion and an appreciation for the messiness of real life. Nothing resolves tidily in Unicorns. Some of the challenges faced by the characters fall away; others change shape or stubbornly stay put. We end the film not knowing what’s become of certain supporting characters, or how certain relationships will play out.
What we do understand is the undeniable bond between two people who truly see and adore each other for who they are, who become the best and truest versions of themselves when they’re together. It’s a small story, in some ways — but one that, in Unicorns’ tender hands, feels like more than enough.
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