At one point in I Believe in Unicorns, a young man cradles his girlfriend’s face in his hands and says, “You’re so beautiful.”
“And smart,” she adds.
“Yes,” he laughs. “And smart. I was just about to say smart.”
“And…” she comes back. “Beautiful?”
Watching the scene, I felt like I was having that conversation with the movie itself, which is definitely attractive—and knows it—but keeps trying to remind you that it’s more than that. It’s a lava lamp of a film: it’s easy to stare at, and where your thoughts wander during its 88-minute running time is up to you.
Leah Meyerhoff’s debut feature, which opens today at IFC Center in New York and will be available June 1 via Vimeo On Demand, follows that young couple on a languid, uneventful road trip across northern California. They’re on the run from their imperfect home lives, but they’re not quite sure where they’re running to. Fortunately, they seem to have as much time, gas, and sunlight as they need to figure things out.
Davina (Natalia Dyer), the girl, is a teenager who’s ready for a relationship but not ready to let go of her bike-handle ribbons and under-the-sheets puppet shows. Nobody seems to judge her for that, least of all Sterling (Peter Vack), the skater boy who picks her up in a park and takes her back to his flophouse for some stained-mattress shenanigans. Davina’s tired of caring for her mom (Toni Meyerhoff, the director’s mother), who’s enduring multiple sclerosis with stark stoicism, and the two young lovers decide that what they need is a getaway of undetermined length and destination.
Writer/director Meyerhoff loads her slight story with visual and narrative contrivances including an extended allegory about a girl who seeks to tame a unicorn. The unicorn scenes are rendered in stop-motion animation, which serves less to add a layer of enchantment than to remind you that this girl who’s getting bent over hay bales by a much older guy (it’s unclear how old Sterling is meant to be, but Vack is almost 30) is still living in a prepubescent fantasy world.
This film could have been deeply disturbing—and maybe it should have been—but Meyerhoff lets harsh reality pull its punches. I Believe in Unicorns is yet another techno-anachronist teen indie (see also: Palo Alto, It Follows) that’s set in the present (or at least recently enough for Sterling to know the Unicorns’ 2003 song “I Was Born [a Unicorn]”) but where cars are vintage, hotel rooms still have actual keys, and absolutely no one has a cell phone.
When Davina and Sterling head off on their sojourn, they entirely detach themselves from their prior lives, which is convenient insofar as all the action stays right on-camera, but reinforces the sense that these characters are themselves allegorical archetypes: the unicorn is a figment of Davina’s imagination, and Davina is a figment of Meyerhoff’s. The facts that both Dyer and Vack are movie-star gorgeous, and that the weather is always perfect (granted, this is northern California), that they stay fastidiously drug-free along their journey, and that they never run into any serious threats (even Sterling’s flophouse friends are solid dudes and righteous chicks) all serve to underline the fact that we’re living in a highly abstracted version of reality.
That would all be well and good, except that it also serves to deflate the emotional stakes. As the film rolls on, we become less and less involved in these characters’ lives as Meyerhoff stubbornly refuses to give us any purchase on their lived realities. They don’t really have conversations, they have twee exchanges. There are vague references to Sterling’s deadbeat dad, but they just seem to be there to trigger Sterling’s dark side—and when he gets rough with Davina, she doesn’t seem hurt or shocked so much as sadly disappointed.
By the end of the film, Davina has seemingly come of age—but what has she learned? Despite the fact that much of the movie is ostensibly spent inside Davina’s imagination, Meyerhoff never really lets us in. Dyer is a sympathetic, natural actress, but her sweet smiles and knitted brow can’t carry this story on their own.
I appreciate that I’m not the target audience for this movie, and maybe it will find fans who don’t want anything meatier than a picturesque picaresque. There may also be those who find that Meyerhoff’s creative visual storytelling carries the weight that her screenplay doesn’t. Maybe my problem is that I just don’t believe.