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EIFF 2014: ‘I Believe in Unicorns’ is a fanciful ode to the American road movie

I Believe in Unicorns Natalia Dyer

I Believe in Unicorns Film Poster

I Believe in Unicorns
Written and directed by Leah Meyerhoff
USA, 2014

I Believe in Unicorns is an ode to the American road movie that wears its influences on its sleeve. Particularly reverential to Terrence Malick’s Badlands, it even uses a version of its famous ‘Gassenhauer’ theme, although it must be said that other films have done the same. Despite drawing heavily from these renowned sources, first-time writer-direction Leah Meyerhoff isn’t simply mimicking her idols. By explicitly placing her film within this tradition, she’s able to critique the hopeless romanticism of her central character and scrutinise the naivety of her escape.

Davina, played by Natalia Dyer in a striking breakthrough performance, is an imaginative teenager who spends much of her time in a fantasy world. Fascinated by unicorns, she retreats into childish visions, mentally distancing herself from the draining reality of caring for her infirm mother. When she meets Sterling (Peter Vack), an older boy who’s into skateboarding, drinking and rock music, she sees an opportunity to translate her fanciful escapism into something more concrete. Sterling’s life is wild, anarchic and apparently without limits, so he needs little convincing to drive her off into the sunset.

However, the relationship always appears one-sided and Sterling never sincerely shows the same devotion to Davina that she does to him. They have an abstract, poetic way of talking to each other, rooted in their personal mythologies and self-conceptions, but it’s clear that Davina is more invested in their shared destiny than he is. Her longing for a new life comes from years of loneliness, stress and melancholy, while he seems to just be going along for the ride. The characters are irresponsible, pretentious and often infuriating but they’re portrayed with enough honesty to make it work.

Sex is a major part of their relationship and Meyerhoff treats it with a refreshing complexity. It’s something they both desire but are unable to control. For Sterling, it appears to be the guiding principle behind the relationship, his only genuine source of fulfilment. On the other hand, the younger Davina uses it to prove her maturity and value. They have sex frequently and aggressively, only occasionally displaying anything like the love and emotions they profess. As their feelings towards one another deteriorate, it becomes little more than a form of abuse.

I Believe in Unicorns Natalia Dyer

The trajectory of their relationship is reflected in stop-motion animation sequences, involving a unicorn travelling into the wilderness. There are other animations throughout the film, especially at the beginning, showing things like objects packing themselves away into Davina’s bag. The style of animation, handmade, whimsical and affectionate, resembles Michel Gondry, but, when it comes to theme and effect, it’s far closer to Terry Gilliam. Through dream sequences, fantasies and a host of visual effects Meyerhoff constructs a dark, psychological counterpoint to the sun-drenched optimism of the American road.

Even the live action sequences are scattered with moments of sublime and wistful beauty, notably when Davina and Sterling come across a group of circus performers in the dark. This scene is imagined, as are others in which Davina walks through a forest with a pair of wings, but they’re revealing nevertheless. The film becomes totally immersed in Davina’s way of thinking, using her own myths and metaphors to elucidate her deepest feelings.

As the title suggests, I Believe in Unicorns is a film about using fantasy as a means to escape the world. For Davina, this leads to excitement and new experiences but her belief in her visions blinds her to what’s really going on. Despite taking its structure and aesthetic from the American road movie, the film avoids all the usual pitfalls and clichés of that gnere. Instead, it uses nostalgia and familiar imagery to highlight just how far from that kind of situation this really is. These are ordinary teenagers in a dysfunctional relationship, grabbing half-heartedly at the chance for another life.

Rob Dickie

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