When we meet Davina (Natalia Dyer) in Leah Meyerhoff’s film I Believe in Unicorns, she seems like many teenage girls—a dreamer lost in her own imagination, clad in Converse shoes and slip dresses, perpetually taking pictures of her feet.
I Believe in Unicorns, which premiered at SXSW this month, follows the story of Davina as she falls in love and runs away from her achingly small hometown, where she lives with her disabled mother. As her romance becomes troubled, both Davina and the film veer into fantasy, giving way to a story filled with magical realism.
The strongest part of the film is Davina herself. I felt instantly connected to Davina, thanks to Dyer’s strong performance but also because Davina’s intricate character reminded me of myself growing up. She’s shy, stuck in her own skin, and bears the huge responsibility of being her ill mother’s primary caretaker. At her age, her home feels like a prison from which she can’t escape. When a mysterious, older punk rock guy named Sterling (superbabe Peter Vack) comes into the picture, Davina is equally intrigued and afraid as she takes steps toward discovering herself. The pair embark on a volatile relationship and Davina explores her sexuality in realistic and at-times-unnerving ways—this is not typical teen movie fodder.
Davina’s story, for me, felt extremely personal. While we only get brief, heart-wrenching scenes of her caring for her mother, the film brought back my own complicated relationship with caring for my mom. When she dives into a potentially bad relationship with an aloof guy, I was sharply reminded me of the skateboarders of my high school past.
Where I Believe in Unicorns stumbles is in its forays into magical realism. The story cuts between Davina’s rocky real life and an elaborate fantasyland where she’s a princess, complete with unicorns and dragons. While beautifully shot, the idea doesn’t quite work. The approach does effectively establish the innocence that Davina still holds while she’s embarking on this very adult life, but her fantasy world distracts the film from showing a deep portrait of her real life. During my teenage years, I would probably have loved this film—I constantly imagined I was in a Weetzie Bat-esque Francesca Lia Block headspace. But as an adult viewer, the fantasy fell flat—at the end of the film I craved more of Davina’s reality.
While the film primarily focuses on how Davina’s first love throws her for a loop, I wanted more about her life beyond the pitfalls of romance. The audience sees her enthusiasm for art and imagination, but everything else about her character feels like a collage. The smattering of bits and pieces about her life don’t add up to much. I would have loved more exploration of Davina’s relationship with her mother, which feels underdeveloped. Also left lingering is Davina’s relationship with her female friend Cassidy (Julia Garner), who doesn’t seem onboard with her relationship with Sterling. While Cassidy is portrayed as a support system for Davina, there’s not much development to their relationship and it in the end it feels shallow.
In I Believe in Unicorns, Meyerhoff’s writing and direction create compelling characters. Davina is an complicated heroine that teen girls desperately need. But those same girls need more of Davina—not her unicorns—for her story to resonate.
Watch the trailer for I Believe in Unicorns:
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