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Sensitive direction lifts I Believe In Unicorns above its clichéd indie elements

There’s no doubt that I Believe In Unicorns, the feature debut of Film Fatales founder Leah Meyerhoff, is deeply felt, possibly even autobiographical. If anything, Meyerhoff’s delicately sketched portrait of troubled young love is sensitive to a fault, riding the line between subtle and slight and occasionally lapsing into inconsequence during an unfocused middle section. But that same sensitivity gives the film a haunting quality, as our heroine’s fragile naiveté is crushed by weighty emotional consequences in the final act.

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Sad-eyed brunette Natalia Dyer stars as Davina, a shy 16-year-old girl whose life is dominated by her best friend Cassidy (Julia Garner) and her mother, Toni (played by Toni Meyerhoff, the director’s mother), who has multiple sclerosis and requires constant care. Sterling (Peter Vack), an older bad-boy type who Davina first spots skateboarding in the park, is a welcome distraction, and the two bond over the lack of father figures in their lives and a shared, goofy sense of humor. Soon Davina’s world begins to revolve around Sterling and, ignoring early, obvious danger signs, she drops everything to take off on an aimless road trip with her cigarette-smoking beau that eventually steers into some sexually and emotionally perilous territory.

On paper this all sounds terribly cliché, and it’s a testament to Meyerhoff’s talent as a director that she manages to give the standard coming-of-age material emotional resonance, especially amid classic teen-girl journal imagery like balloons, sparklers, homemade wings, and, of course, unicorns. She does so with character clues that show rather than tell—in one scene, Davina fills her basket with plastic toys at a truck stop, oblivious to the fact that her boyfriend is shoplifting a couple of aisles away. Ultimately, the film skims the surface of Davina’s character in order to concentrate on her heady fixation on and ultimate disillusionment with her first love. But such is the way of teenage girls.

There’s definitely a segment of the moviegoing population for whom I Believe In Unicorns will be unbearably twee, so here’s a warning: This movie has hand-drawn unicorns in its credits, stop-motion animation of unicorns throughout, and an acoustic rendition of The Unicorns’ “I Was Born A Unicorn.” It also has a languid, dreamlike sense of time, enhanced by timeless details like a complete lack of cell phones that could be either a byproduct of the film’s painful hipness or a deliberately vague detail placing the story somewhere in Meyerhoff’s own past. Conversely, the sense of place is very distinct—first Southern, then Northern California—and the sets, particularly Davina’s home, feel very lived-in and specific.

The film also boasts consistently beautiful cinematography, that must, again, come with a warning: I Believe In Unicorns is shot on a combination of film stocks that, combined with Meyerhoff’s penchant for montage and dream imagery, create an effect that seems specifically designed to appeal to the Rookie Magazine set. Here’s a simple test of whether this movie is for you: At one point Davina and Sterling are lying on their backs in a bucolic California field, staring up at the Instagram-blue sky.

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“Do you think we’ll be happier when we get there?” she asks.

“Where?” he replies.

“Anywhere but here.”

Did you just unstick your eyeballs from the back of your head? Then this movie isn’t for you. Let the dreamy teenage girls have this one, and go see something else instead.

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