‘I Believe in Unicorns’: Film Review

A teenage girl with a rich fantasy life begins a relationship with an older boy in Leah Meyerhoff’s debut feature.

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.

The Bottom Line

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.

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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.