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I Believe in Unicorns

Other // Unrated // January 19, 2016
List Price: $24.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted March 14, 2016 | E-mail the Author
The faintly faded color palette and impressionistic nature of Leah Meyerhoff's I Believe in Unicorns is similar to that of a scrapbook, with each passing moment documented through a stream-of-consciousness digesting of emotion. Meyerhoff's protagonist, Davina (Natalia Dyer) is a 16-year-old girl, weathering a hurricane of repressed frustration at having to be responsible for her disabled mother (played by Meyerhoff's actual mother Toni Meyerhoff), her yearning for self-discovery (pointedly prompted by a school art project), and the appearance of the handsome and rebellious Sterling (Peter Vack), who talks about his desire to leave everything behind. Meyerhoff presents Davina's coming-of-age as a woozy, bittersweet dream, interspersed with segments of pure fantasy.

The whole experience feels lived-in and authentic enough that it probably doesn't matter that I walked away admiring the movie more than I enjoyed it. Of course, I'm not necessarily the target audience for Unicorns, which flits between the viewpoint of young Davina and that of Meyerhoff, through her directorial perspective, looking back on those experiences, or similar ones. On the other hand, it might also be that Davina's story is high on accuracy but low on insight, offering up the fairly familiar story of an angry older boy whose own emotional immaturity ultimately collides with that of a younger girl's.

Davina and Sterling meet at a skate park, where he catches her taking Polaroid photographs of him. Although Davina's friend Cassidy (Julia Garner) seems to sense that Sterling isn't as cool as Davina thinks he is, Davina follows Sterling around anyway. He invites her to a punk rock club, where Davina's school clothes and pink backpack look out of place surrounded by mohawks, leather, and walls so plastered with graffiti and stickers that the surface is hardly visible. Although the desire to appear more grown-up than you are is probably a universal teenage experience, Meyerhoff struggles to convey that nervous energy, leaning more toward an objective viewpoint that will speak more to older viewers who can more clearly see that Davina's sensitive, quiet side and Sterling's outlet for his own frustrations are probably fundamentally incompatible.

Frustrated with their dead-end town, Davina and Sterling run away together, hitting the road together on a whim. As they get farther from home, with only each other to keep themselves company, the cracks that were always present in Sterling's veneer start to grow bigger. When Davina tries to talk to him about personal issues, he grows moody and irritable, constantly undermining and hurting her with casual cruelty. Although Dyer plays this with honesty and heartfelt sadness, there is an inevitability to it that all stories like this one are forced to reckon with. To present Sterling as flawless until he isn't would be a cheat, not to mention impossible given he is clearly older and theoretically wiser than Davina. On the other hand, Meyerhoff's objectivity about him makes it too easy to wish that Davina would pick up on his shortcomings sooner.

As the film continues, it seems plausible that Meyerhoff is choosing not to tell a more specific story, one that would root the viewer firmly in Davina's perspective, because doing otherwise runs the risk of muting the movie's universal qualities. Davina and Sterling's road trip is intercut with sequences depicting a majestic unicorn that wanders into a forest to fight a deadly dragon. The metaphor of these sequences, along with the metaphor of the title itself, appear to call out to everyone who hoped to live a fantasy rather than face the struggles of reality. Yet, the strongest connection a filmmaker can make with an audience comes through in the specific, and Davina and Sterling's fleeting romance doesn't have enough instances of it to make it engaging on a deeper level. There will be those who find enough specificity in the film to connect with it, and Meyerhoff's film is certainly representative of a strong vision. That said, it comes off more thoughtful than moving, more retrospective than introspective, like looking at a scrapbook that doesn't belong to you or anyone you knew.

I Believe in Unicorns gets special packaging from IndiePix, which brings the one-disc release to DVD in a cardboard digipak. The front is a fairly uninformative image of a sunny sky containing a few dissipating clouds, with a ring of fire blazing through them. The back cover, which depicts a collection of Polaroids (a motif which also covers the interior) says more about the film and its story. It's not that I wouldn't take a more evocative cover over a "traditional" cover 10 times out of 10, more that this image barely registers even on a metaphorical level in terms of relating to the film, which also seems like a waste of its special packaging. The hub used on the tray also doesn't hold the disc very well. There is no insert.

The Video and Audio
Presented in what appears to be 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen (with bars on the left and right sides of the image instead of the top and bottom), I Believe in Unicorns gets a strong visual presentation that reflects its source material well. One can tell right away that Meyerhoff shot on film, in this case, Super 16 (with some footage shot on Super 8), giving the movie a soft and grainy appearance. Colors are somewhat muted and faded, giving the entire image the feel of a faded photograph, accentuating the movie's wistful and nostalgic qualities. Although it's possible that the picture could exhibit more clarity or dimension, the visual style is so informative that there are really no drawbacks to the limitations of standard-def. Audio is a Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track that has little to contend with other than dialogue and music, and does so without much fanfare. No captions or subtitles are included.

The Extras
Snippets of footage and interviews have been edited together into little vignettes, entitled "Fairytale" (2:05), "Davina" (0:42), "Sterling" (0:46). and "Daydream" (1:33). These provide a sense of what the movie is about and how the two leading actors feel about their characters in a slightly more artistic way than simply showing footage from the movie or providing a straightforward interview.

The last entry on the menu, "Twitch" (10:03), is not another vignette, but a short film, also by Meyerhoff. It follows a young woman (Emma Galvin), struggling with anxiety about her own future based on the condition of her disabled mother. Some of the ideas used in I Believe in Unicorns appear here as well, including Toni Meyerhoff as the protagonist's mother, and the preservation of foods with Saran Wrap, although "Twitch" isn't as pushed, stylistically.

An original theatrical trailer for I Believe in Unicorns is also included.

I Believe in Unicorns is impressive from a directorial standpoint, but doesn't quite pack the kind of emotional punch that it probably ought to. The same haze of memory and nostalgia that Meyerhoff views the story through limits how likely it is those who haven't had a specifically similar experience will be able to connect with it. Lightly recommended.

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