I Believe in Unicorns
Directed by Leah Meyerhoff
Opens May 29 at IFC Center
Writer-director Leah Meyerhoff understands that the selfie is a poignant symptom of self-searching adolescence that predates the digital camera, and styles her debut feature as a scrapbook, with her montage encompassing varied film and video formats, stop-motion animation, still photo poses, time-lapse effects, subjective inserts, dream sequences and diaristic doodle-poetry voice-over. Davina (Natalia Dyer) yearns for life outside of the near-silent long-shots depicting the home she shares with her degenerative illness-stricken mother. On her birthday—the day her art teacher (a cameo-ing Amy Seimetz, talking over her audience’s heads) gives the class a self-portrait assignment, and the day Davina’s best friend gives her a camera—she meets longhaird skate punk Sterling (Peter Vack), who sings her “I Was Born a Unicorn” on his guitar, and whose ripped t-shirts fall over his shoulders just so. There’s so much beauty in the world but it’s so tainted by reminders of the older generation’s disappointments, and so the two drive off, to a world of food-fights in diners and cartwheels through fields (the two leads’ faces become visibly sunburned).
Sterling can be distant before or after sex, or tickle Davina and make goofy noises; he shoplifts, but he lets her paint his fingernails; he hates the abusive father who abandoned him, and thinks about him too much. Within the film’s collage, and its evocation of all Davina’s feels, he’s a familiar kind of archetypal indie love object—though “manic pixie dream boy” isn’t quite right, because the gender-reversed version of that kind of story is inevitably much darker. One thing the film does very right, thanks to the actors’ and the story’s first-time guilelessness, is that it gets Sterling early, where his push-pull of vulnerability and control seems still unconscious, even surprising to him.
I Believe in Unicorns feels at times as fragile as Dyer’s age-appropriate lead performance, with the unapologetic girly-goth transparency of its symbolic imagery: not just white unicorns and black dragons but also fireworks, angel wings, and fantasies of drowning. This is like the movie Jena Malone’s character from Donnie Darko would make, and it’s about time she did.