I Believe in Unicorns opens with film footage from old home movies. Although the sequence has little to do with the rest of the film from a narrative standpoint, it establishes a thematic timeless quality to the film. Though I Believe in Unicorns is clearly set in contemporary times, it tells a coming-of-age story that is universal which writer/director Leah Meyerhoff captures in a film that blurs childhood imagination and adult realities.
Whimsical, free-spirited teenager Davina (Natalia Dyer), who is more Polaroid than Instagram, takes care of her aging, wheelchair-bound mother (Toni Meyerhoff). Though she is shy and introspective, Davina has a crush on a skater a few years older than her named Sterling (Peter Vack). Sterling notices her and they begin dating. While they both enjoy playing childlike games, there is an ugly undercurrent of unhappiness and violence to their relationship that is seemingly deeply rooted to their upbringings. When Davina is feeling upset or has moments of uncertainty about both herself and the relationship, she withdraws into a fantasy world seemingly inspired by movies like Legend and The Last Unicorn filled with wonderful stop motion effects. These give the film a contemplative and dreamlike quality.
Though Davina and Sterling are engaged in a young romance, there is an uncomfortable quality to their relationship. She’s younger than seventeen, and he’s clearly older than that. The two run off together to escape their unfulfilling lives, but they have no direction (both literary and figuratively). They want to head somewhere, but they don’t know where and even if they did know that, they wouldn’t have the resources to get there. Even though Davina and Sterling are teenagers, they are still both very young — and Davina in particular torn between her wish to start a new life and her desire to go home. Late in the film this aimlessness in the characters is somewhat reflected in the film’s narrative — there is at least one more cycle of the couple goofing off, getting mad at one another, and making up than necessary, and since this is only an 80 minute film it almost feels like it’s there to pad the length.
The dialogue in I Believe in Unicorns is mostly understated. Davina barely seems to understand the feelings she is having, let alone knowing how to talk about them. That requires the lead actors to convey their emotions with their expressions. In particular, Dyer portrays Davina as a young woman who is sad, afraid, confused, and — even when she is with Sterling — frequently lonesome. Dyer does an excellent job of exhibiting these feelings.
Meyerhoff’s 2005 short film Twitch also deals with a young girl and her disabled mother (in fact, the disabled mother in both films is portrayed by Toni Meyerhoff), and some of the same themes from that short appear here. I Believe in Unicorns follows the long tradition of coming-of-age films about young people not fully understanding what they are going through.
It was enjoyable to spend this time with Davina and her imagination, even if the film meanders a bit in its final third. After all, it makes sense for someone with an imagination as beautiful as Davina’s to let it wander from time to time.