I Believe in Unicorns
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Technically a dazzler, “I Believe in Unicorns” is a coming-of-age tale of a teenager caught between womanhood and girlish flights of fantasy. It’s a romance that is very cynical about love, and a drama that takes itself both very seriously and playfully. The fact that it’s written and directed by a woman who’s still a graduate student at New York University’s film school is staggering.
Like “Twitch,” a short film Leah Meyerhoff previously made, this appears to be a quasi-autobiographical tale about a girl with a mother (Toni Meyerhoff) who is seriously disabled. Barely speaking and confined to a wheelchair by an unidentified illness, she’s more of a dependent on young Davina than the other way around.
Movingly, the story begins with photographs and video of Toni Meyerhoff from her own girlhood into adultery and motherhood, continuing through her slow decline into invalidism.
But ultimately, this is the tale of Davina, winningly played by Natalia Dyer. Her age is never explicitly stated, but in the beginning she seems so waif-like and innocent, we guess perhaps 13 or 14. She grows up quickly over the course of the next 78 minutes, and by the end seems like an old soul who has been worn down by life.
The cause of her transformation is the oldest story in human history, and filmmaking: love, or at least the facsimile of it. Loitering with a friend in the park, she takes some Polaroids of a cute skateboarder, who notices her and comes over to talk. Casually, he instructs her to meet him at a certain place the next day, no time specified. Thrilled by the attentions from an older, mysterious figure, we suspect she would have waited all day.
Sterling (Peter Vack) is a mix of contradictions. He styles himself a renegade poet, but is burdened by the weight of his absent father’s ghost. He lives the life of a vagabond, with little to his name but his skateboard, a guitar and an ancient Camaro. He wants Davina desperately, but only in small spurts. He plucks her chastity like an unripe fruit, to be savored and disposed of as his fleeting whims dictate.
(Vack also bears an unfortunate resemblance to a young Andy Samberg, which grows distracting during the more serious moments when Sterling is supposed to be threatening.)
They take off on a road trip to parts unknown, heading westward as long as their modest supply of cash, supplemented by petty thievery, can sustain them. It eventually becomes clear to Davina that their star-crossed romance cannot be sustained beyond first blush, but she’s obstinate enough to try.
Leah Meyerhoff has some beautiful camerawork, often lending the film a dream-like quality. This is enhanced by Davina’s daydreams, involving unicorns made out of paper or other craft materials, which move in deliberately jerky stop-motion animation. Later, she encounters a fearsome dragon, and it’s not a stretch to figure out who that represents.
There’s not a whole lot of story to “I Believe in Unicorns,” but the evocative imagery and convincing performance by Dyer buoy it along on a wave of whimsy, nostalgia and regret. Meyerhoff is a filmmaker born; now all she needs is some narrative to push and pull.