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Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Review: I BELIEVE IN UNICORNS Is Familiar But Undeniably Dreamy

There's not that much to I Believe in Unicorns, writer/director Leah Meyerhoff's debut feature film. Davina, a young girl from a broken home, falls for a bad boy, runs off with him, and, in the process, grows up. It's a story we've seen, frankly, a hundred times before, with bigger budgets, a more experienced cast, a tighter script, a hundred elements that should make them technically superior to Meyerhoff's film. But few have captured the dreamy, languorous energy of young love half so well, a feeling I Believe in Unicorns heightens by building its story on the difference between who you are and who you wish you could be, and the way growing up slowly bridges those two things for better or for worse. It's pure, concentrated teen-angst power, and Meyerhoff handles it with finesse.

Natalia Dyer is rock solid as Davina, the artsy lead character who runs away from home, and it's a good thing she is, as she has to carry basically every beat of the film on her shoulders. Davina's journey, a coming of age tale with a powerful sexual awakening, finds her going from a naive girl seeking to escape a rough home life to a woman realizing that real life can't be escaped, and Dyer sells the evolution of the character honestly. Much of the film's characterization for Davina comes through in her actions - her childish innocence while boyfriend Sterling (Peter Vack) shoplifts nearby, her playful-to-increasingly-less-so forgiveness of his transgressions - rather than dialogue, and Dyer's subtle evolution from adolescent sadness to adult-onset weariness grows in power as the film continues.

Peter Vack, a relative newcomer, impressed as well. Though the part was written with surprising sensitivity - he's a cad, but you understand and even sympathize with him - it could have easily come across as a hot-but-leaden love interest in the Twilight vein. But Vack's role is darker than that, both for himself and for Dyer's journey. Sterling is abused and underloved, possibly dealing with undiagnosed behavioral disorders, and while it's easy to us to see the warning signs immediately, it's never unbelievable when Davina blows right past them in an attempt to create the life she feels she deserves. Sterling is a shitty boyfriend, but Vack has a grungily seductive screen presence - something Meyerhoff plays up in the film's many playfully dreamy segments - and as Davina grows beyond him, it's hard not to feel a twinge of sadness for the awful boy who is stuck with himself.

But the real star of I Believe in Unicorns is Leah Meyerhoff, who proves to have a canny eye for gorgeous, lightly-fantastical imagery, a deft touch that recalls a more sensitive version of Peter Jackson's career-making Heavenly Creatures. The impressionistic editing and the decision to film in Super 16 and Super 8 with stop-motion animation intruding on the world at times lends the film a dreamy aesthetic that borders on surreal. It's a canny contrast to the film's bleakly-realized 'real' world. For all the earnestness on display here, Meyerhoff's film has an emotional sensitivity and a sense of character and place lacking in many popular teen coming of age stories, like last year's The Fault in Our Stars. For all that I think the script is too familiar, Meyerhoff at least uses the familiarity to introduce subtlety, nuance, and personal history rather than simply making it plottier.

I Believe in Unicorns has so many things working against it on the outside. Its title invites mockery, its indie-approved story is something we've seen a half-a-dozen variants on this year alone, and the twee stop-motion sections and forays into fantasy are gorgeous but so simplistically-designed and earnestly presented that they may turn off audiences. But Leah Meyerhoff and her cast bring it all together. This is, in many ways, the sort of movie that is incredibly easy to make fun of, and the cynical among you are bound to snort the first time Meyerhoff jumps to a low-tech Super 8 fantasy sequence, or at the plaintive teen musings that (purposefully) confuse wanting for depth.

You shouldn't. Leah Meyerhoff's movie contains some of the sharpest filmmaking I've seen in an indie film in ages, and a lead capable of bringing it all to life. The script may be mired in cliche, but I Believe in Unicorns is still a powerhouse debut film from a director you need to keep an eye out for.

I Believe in Unicorns is out now on VOD services, including Amazon. Written and directed by Leah Meyerhoff, I Believe in Unicorns stars Natalia Dyer, Peter Vack, and Julia Garner.
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