The protagonist of I Believe in Unicorns is sixteen-year-old Davina, played by actual sixteen-year-old Natalia Dyer, who spends her days partly in the real world, where she must be the sole caretaker of a mother with multiple sclerosis, and partly in a fantasy world full of unicorns, forest nymphs, and princesses.
Davina struggles to make everyday life a storybook page, decorating her room, her diary, her bicycle, and her own outfits with a collection of sparkly and colorful baubles. She carries these tiny plastic dinosaurs, necklaces, and bouncy balls with her as a form of protection, to keep herself from sinking too far into the ordinary and the sad.
The film follows Davina as she meets and becomes quickly enamored with the much older Sterling, played smolderingly by Peter Vack. Sterling skateboards, has moody but romantic eyes, wears an army green jacket, and likes to makes his own rules. Swoon. Davina is helpless against the tide of new and unfamiliar feelings she quickly develops for him.
Despite poor and worrisome treatment from Sterling early on, Davina, desperate to see and feel something different from the life she knows, begins an aimless road trip with her new love, and the rest of the film details the exhilaration and subsequent exhaustion of running away with someone new.
The movie is simply beautiful. It’s shot on Super 16mm film, giving the images a grainy and nostalgic feel. Davina wears fluffy, feminine clothing, often involving layers of sheer, sparkly fabrics, and piles on bracelets and necklaces. Meyerhoff pulls in reels of footage from old family films. Essentially, the visual expression of Davina’s inner world allows for a no-holds-barred indulgence in creativity, and it works wonderfully.
The lush, fantastical escape scenes offer a contrast to the sometimes difficult realities of the film.
Davina’s home life and role as caretaker of her mother are sensitively portrayed, and it’s not surprising to learn that those scenes were shot in Meyerhoff’s childhood home. The spaces looked lived in and full of memories, not all charming.
There are also multiple sex scenes, and while there is no nudity, it’s hard to argue that they’re not graphic, particularly when Sterling’s “volatile” side comes out.
At times, it’s difficult to watch a girl who is so clearly a child placed into these very adult situations. In that way, and in others, the film makes some bold and ultimately well-considered choices. Audiences are used to seeing adult actresses playing teenagers. When they engage in behaviors that we know in our minds are “risky” for fragile, developing adolescents–skipping school to go on a romance-fueled road trip, having rough sex with older boys–it’s easier to swallow because our eyes see bodies that make sense in those very adult postures and environments.
By casting Natalia Dyer, who was really sixteen at the time and looks it, all questioning eyes and sharp angles, the filmmakers were able to expose reality more truthfully. Davina is young and unable to hide it, and she’s making decisions that seem romantic (and consensual) in the moment but change shape as you grow older.
As complex and inventive as the film is in many ways, there were some missed opportunities when it came to character. The dialogue is so spare that the characters never fully develop, and many viewers might find that a strong style, extraordinary set decoration, and quirky curios aren’t quite enough to build solid characters when they spend much of their time staring silently. The story of Davina is important and visually remarkable, but that doesn’t always make it compelling.
Julia Garner, standout lead in the 2012 film Electrick Children, plays a small role as Davina’s best friend. In the first twenty minutes of the film, she appears as a kind and sensitive high school companion, and then reappears at the very end as the only reliable support Davina can reach out to for help.
I understand Meyerhoff’s desire to keep the film focused on Davina–it is, after all, a largely autobiographical story according to what she has said in interviews–but I think the film loses out by never pointing the camera in the direction of the supporting characters when Davina isn’t around them. Checking in on Garner’s character, witnessing her own home life and her experiences as a young girl whose best friend has disappeared, would have been an opportunity to build out characters by showing them in relation to one another, allowing the film to make perhaps a stronger narrative statement about girlhood and the way that we learn, when we are young, how to have many different types of relationships.
As it stands, the film is really only focused on one relationship, and we see it falling apart in painful if not altogether surprising fashion. Visual wonders aside, I Believe in Unicorns is about a girl trying to see what there is to see in the world, and slowly realizing that this guy she’s with isn’t the one–the only one, the right one–to see it with. After everything, Sterling is gone and Davina remains.
I Believe in Unicorns is now screening at the IFC Center in New York. Check the film’s site for info on future screenings and VOD releases.
Kayleigh Hughes is an editor, freelance writer, and overthinker. In addition to contributing to Loser City, Kayleigh occasionally writes for xoJane. Talk to her about literally anything–she doesn’t have that many friends–on twitter or via email.