An atmospheric coming-of-age film showing the heartbreak of young love and the importance of self-discovery.
I Believe in Unicorns
In the crowded world of coming-of-age indies, Leah Meyerhoff’s debut feature I Believe in Unicorns manages to stand out. Using highly stylized visuals, the film transforms the Bay area surroundings into a magical fantasy land of a teenage girl’s mind, often utilizing dreamlike hallucinations and stop-motion animation to represent her feelings. Meyerhoff crafts a delicate observation of young lust from a paper-thin but universal story, showing the difficulties of transitioning into adulthood and leaving behind fairy tale fantasies. The film feels deeply personal—even autobiographical—as Meyerhoff uses her actual mother in the film and an opening credit montage of home videos that feel inspired by her own childhood memories.
Free-spirited high-schooler Davina (Natalia Dyer) seeks refuge from the demands of her wheelchair-bound mother (Toni Meyerhoff), whom she’s been the sole caretaker of for most of her life. Early in the film she stumbles upon a cigarette-smoking skateboarder named Sterling (Peter Vack). The attraction to him is immediate. His energetic and rebellious personality is exactly the kind of change Davina hopes will liberate her from her current monotonous routine. They hit it off right away, bonding over the lack of father figures in their lives and the desire for adventure. Soon they’re spending every spare moment together, and one evening in the back room of a punk rock show, she loses her virginity.
Davina overlooks the early warning signs of Sterling’s aggression, even ignoring the trusted opinion of her best friend, Cassidy (Julia Garner). Soon after their first sexual encounter, Davina gets the cold shoulder after expressing affection towards him. His disinterest only arouses her more. And after a half-assed apology of, “I get that way sometimes,” the two move on as if nothing happened. The very next day, they finally do what they’ve always wanted; escape. Expecting the impromptu road trip would lead to self-discovery, they end up learning more about each other than themselves. For Davina, this means facing the ugly side of Prince Charming and realizing life isn’t a storybook.
I Believe in Unicorns captures the uncertainty of being an aimless teenager—still unsure of who you are or where you want to go. When the two leads set out on a road trip, their destination is simply “anywhere but here.” Moments of childish behavior such as giggling water gun fights and applying temporary tattoos are mixed in with sudden sexual romps and violent outbursts. The most important advice the film offers is, just because you want to be an adult—or even act like one—doesn’t mean you are one. And little do they know, the irony of becoming an adult is, once you are one, it’s only natural to miss the days of being young again. But until you hop over the fence, the grass is always greener on the other side.
Davina has always found living in a fantasy world—depicted with mythical creatures like unicorns and dragons—helps her to escape from the troubles of real life. In an opening scene, we watch her neatly organize the contents of her backpack. Then, using stop-motion, the items crawl back into the backpack on their own. There’s also a great tracking shot of the two walking through a carnival while people pass by on unicycles, tossing flamethrowers, and dancing hula hoopers. Davina and Sterling watch these oddities in astonishment, as if they’re seeing the outside world for the first time. The eye-catching animation sequences are combined with Instagram-filter Super 16mm footage, and give Meyerhoff’s film an astonishing aesthetic that would make Michel Gondry (circa The Science of Sleep) proud.
Dyer puts on a brave performance as an innocent teenager experiencing the most vulnerable stage of her life, facing the harsh realities of the real world. Because the film contains very little dialog, Dyer must rely on body language and facial expressions to convey her emotions. And she handles it well. Her naiveté makes watching the struggle heartbreaking, yet brutally honest. It’s like watching an underdeveloped bird ready to leap from the nest, you want to reach out to help, but some lessons are learned the hard way.
The striking cinematography and strong performances make it possible to overlook some of the flaws and clichés found in the script. For instance, we’re not too concerned with who’s taking care of Davina’s mother while she’s away or the awkward kissing scene between Davina and Cassidy. Instead, the atmospheric dreamworld created by Meyerhoff mesmerizes and reminds us of a time in our own life when we’ve felt vulnerable. I Believe in Unicorns is at times rewarding, heartbreaking and chaotic. But then again, so is the real world.