Sometimes independent cinema is a slave to certain peculiarities. Eclectic choices and stylistic decisions help define the movie with its own imprint. And I’m talking about real independent films here—not shit like “Juno” that passes itself off as an independent movie, even though it cost $30 million and had a cast of well-established talent. Just because you have an oddly named teenage character talk like a 50-year-old literary critic for The New Yorker, and clutter up her room with tchotchkes and a hamburger phone doesn’t mean it’s a real independent film.
“I Believe in Unicorns” is a movie that pained me for the first 20 minutes while I tries to discern its tone. Director Leah Meyerhoff paints broadly with specific, stylistic strokes, but does achingly little to tell us about the characters who inhabit its world. It’s more important to establish Davina’s (Natalia Dyer) penchant for Polaroid instant photos and show her traipsing across the rooftops at dusk. We get the snippets and pieces of our main character’s dull existence, which leads her to fantasize about a more fantastical world (illustrated through the aforementioned stop-motion animation). She’s a lonely girl. Her expressionless mother is sick and saddled to a wheelchair. Her existence is bereft of the kind of magic she pines for.
It isn’t until she meets the equally eclectically named Sterling (Peter Vack) that she begins to feel like there might be some magic to be mined in this world. He’s a complicated man, and no one understands him but his woman. He’s playful, has a nasty mean streak and is intimidating to Davina. He’s the kind of guy that most girls are drawn to when they’re young and wide-eyed: when gaping flaws are overlooked for the flushed feeling he creates with little more than a look.
It’s difficult, nay impossible, to judge an artistic endeavor like “I Believe in Unicorns” compared to tripe like “Juno” or “The Fault in Our Stars,” but there’s the same kind of ramp being employed here. The film opts for lots of style over lots of substance, which I’m fully in favor of given the drifting narrative, poetic voice-overs, and fantasy cutaways of a film that tinkers with a lot of different styles.
The more I watched “I Believe in Unicorns,” the more it felt like I was watching something meant for an interior wall of an art installation. If this movie was an art style, I’d call it impressionistic. It’s not as much about detail as the feelings and emotions it attempts to evoke. While I admire the effort, I also have to take off points for the lack of originality. Let’s be honest, party people: The “sullen girl who daydreams of a more fantastical existence” is right out of “Independent Filmmaking for Dummies”—right up there with “addicts trying to do right” and “twentysomething slackers looking for purpose.”
I have a feeling many will be touched and engaged by “I Believe in Unicorns,” but there was never that moment for me. The film felt sleight, and I never felt like I really knew any of the characters it introduced to me. I’m not afraid to call “I Believe in Unicorns” an interesting artistic endeavor that finds a little mileage in familiar tropes; however, I also am not afraid to call it something of a chore.
There are some good performances and unique production design and cinematography choices. The stop-motion animated fantasy sequences take a decidedly disturbing turn as their relationship sours. I liked some of the more macabre turns, but I was still hoping for something more. I got the same sense of frustration as I did with Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant” (that screened at Cucalorus a few years back). A movie has to be about something. “Elephant” took the Columbine shooting and brought absolutely nothing to the conversation. It simply recreated events and made no attempt to dig deeper than the surface.
In a very similar fashion, “I Believe in Unicorns” suffers from the same malady. I’ll take it back to my art-installation metaphor. There is art at play, but I don’t know if I care for this particular showing.
I Believe in Unicorns
Starring Natalia Dyer, Peter Vack and Julia Garner
Directed by Leah Meyerhoff
Thursday, November 13, 7 p.m.
City Stage, 21 N Front St. #501