I Believe in Unicorns (2015)

20 May

unicorns

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Leah Meyerhoff’s “I Believe in Unicorns” is one of the most compelling coming-of-age stories I’ve seen. I haven’t seen how a feature about teenagers this direct or this honest in some time. There are parts in this film that are so accurately portrayed that it’s kind of hard to watch. It’s a frank, sometimes-brutal portrayal of a teenage girl’s first love experience that shows her come of age in an effective way.

The film stars Natalia Dyer in an excellent performance as Davina, a secluded 15-year-old girl who cares for her handicapped mother (Toni Meyerhoff) and has only one friend (Julia Garner) at school. More than often, Davina daydreams of herself as a princess in a fantasy world of unicorns and dragons. What she doesn’t have in this world is a prince. In reality, she advances towards an older skateboarder, Sterling (Peter Vack), a bad-boy who represents the rebellious spirit within Davina’s soul. Davina and Sterling spend time together. After they have sex, Davina, who was a virgin up until that point, wants to explore her sexuality even further.

I thought I had the rest of the story figured out in the first half-hour. Sterling would shut her out, Davina would grow desperate to earn respect from him again, and she’ll learn an important life lesson. Is that what happens? Actually, no. They do see each other more. When they find that their sexual encounters in Sterling’s room isn’t enough, they decide to hit the road and run away from their boring, lonely family lives just to be together.

The further they go on this journey and the longer they are together, they behave like characters in a fugitive road movie but don’t commit acts of violence toward people they come across. They instead commit acts of violence towards each other (or at least, for Sterling, it’s physical as he has a mean streak; and for Davina, it’s mental because she can say the wrong things to Sterling and set him off). The only way this road trip will end is if things go too far in their sexual sessions, and when it happens, it’s presented with the right amount of time to understand when and how it came to this and how the line will be drawn. Without giving much away, it builds up to a choice Davina must make in order to make herself happy—or if not happy, then fine enough without escaping the harsh realities of her life.

I was a little concerned when I knew there were going to be stop-motion animation sequences showing unicorns and dragons in Davina’s fantasy world, and I thought the gimmick would wear off fast. But the way it’s handled is in a sensible way that doesn’t get old and has something new to represent at crucial moments that mirror Davina and Sterling’s adventure together. It makes the film more profound in that sense. They let you know what Davina is thinking and further depict examples what she’s going through.

The characters are rich and fully realized, thanks to intelligent writing/characterization by Meyerhoff. The film is shot and written in a way that makes everything feel like the real deal, but the honesty and cruelty can mainly come through if the actors were credible. Boy, are they ever. Natalia Dyer is brilliant in the role, capturing the loneliness and curiosity of an adolescent girl going through her first sexual experience with a boy who may not be good for her. Also, give Meyerhoff credit for casting an actual teenager in the role, so the authenticity can come through. This was a risky move to pull, given how unflinching the film is on sex. But because there’s a real teenage girl in the role, we can see and understand what she goes through. She’s great here.

It was a great move not to make Sterling into just a bad guy. He’s not entirely bad; he’s misunderstood while his arrogance can get the best of him. He’s flawed, which makes him more realistic. And he’s written as a three-dimensional character—he can be enthusiastic, he can be upset, he can be angry, he can be confused, and we get to know more about him not just from his dialogue but from his actions as well. There are many emotions for the actor, Peter Vack, to pull off, and he does a great job with the role. When he changes quickly from endearing to hurtful, you believe it. There’s one particular scene later in the film in which Davina and Sterling get a motel room and start to get busy. In one long shot, the scene turns from intimate to violent after a certain action on Davina’s part that causes Sterling to react immediately. This would be a difficult task for an actor to pull off, and Vack is completely convincing.

I can’t think of another recent film that is harder or even as frank about teenage sexuality than this. Even with its fantasy sequences, some of which show a unicorn battling a dragon, it’s still very compelling because it shows how Davina will have to separate fantasy from reality.

Sometimes the film is heartfelt; sometimes that’s confusing; sometimes it’s upsetting. You know what? That’s teenage love.

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