Stylistically impressive if narratively undernourished, Leah Meyerhoff‘s debut feature about a teenage girl experiencing her first love boasts atmosphere to spare. Depicting the alternately idyllic and troubled relationship between a young woman who escapes her drab existence through unfettered flights of imagination and a rakishly charming, older bad boy, I Believe in Unicorns evocatively depicts the vicissitudes of first love.
First seen caring for her invalid mother, played by Toni Meyerhoff, the director’s real-life parent who suffers from multiple sclerosis (in a bit of casting that emphasizes the film’s personal nature), Davina (Natalia Dyer) often takes refuge in a fantasy world involving, yes, unicorns, and other imaginary figures represented by her large collection of stuffed animals, which are brought to life via Josh Mahan‘s striking stop-motion animation.
Dreamy atmospherics enliven this otherwise familiar coming-of-age tale
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Her life takes a sudden dramatic turn when she meets Sterling (Peter Vack), whose chiseled features, long hair, skateboarding skills and brooding manner make him a teenage girl’s dream. Although he promptly deflowers her in the back room of a rock club, he’s indifferent the next time they meet, which only inflames her desire. They soon begin a relationship that results in an impromptu road trip fostered by his desire to go “anywhere but here.” (Who’s going to care for Davina’s mother while she’s away is a question left unanswered.)
Typical teen hijinks ensue with such misbehavior as shoplifting and sneaking into motel rooms where their physical passion is fully expressed. More troublingly, Sterling soon begins exhibiting a dark side, including brutish tendencies and dropping hints about his troubled upbringing. It also turns out that Davinia is far from innocent, as indicated by her tendency towards unnecessary provocation.
Shot in 16mm with occasional Super 8 interludes, the film has an impressionistic quality that appropriately gives it the air of a fever dream. While the thin storyline feels attenuated even with the film’s brief, 80-minute running time, the affecting performances by the two young leads and the visual imagination on display more than compensate for its familiar aspects.
Production: Unicorn Films
Cast: Natalia Dyer, Peter Vack, Julia Garner, Amy Seimetz, Toni Meyerhoff
Director/screenwriter: Leah Meyerhoff
Producer: Heather Rae
Executive producers: Allison Anders, David Kupferberg, Castille Landon, Robin Leland
Director of photography: Jarin Blaschke
Production designer: Katherine Rusch
Editors: Michael Taylor, Rebecca Laks
Costume designer: Emily Batson
Composer: Sasha Gordon
Casting: Morman Boling
Not rated, 80 min.