“I Believe in Unicorns” is a lovely coming-of-age story. It’s based on that transition from what we hope and think might be possible, that fairytale mindset, to reality. We expect that overcoming challenges will result in reaching our goal. But writer/director Leah Meyerhoff’s insight shows that sometimes our reward in life’s voyage is instead an added deeper, more compassionate dimension to our own character.
As the film opens in a collage of old movies, we see that Davinia’s mother first has a cane and then, in the end is in a wheelchair, leading us to believe she possibly has MS. She could represent that all is not perfect in the world and as we age we become more and more aware of the discrepancies between how we’d like life to be and how it really is.
This sequence may also be the director’s own family footage. When she was two, her own mother was diagnosed with MS. In this film, admittedly a fictional story based on some of her own life, Meyerhoff cast her own mother, Toni Meyerhoff, as the mother of Davinia. As her daughter picks her off the floor, slips her shoes on and transfers her from wheelchair to bed, Toni Meyerhoff’s eyes belie an ocean of suffering, gratitude and the feeling that she is so very sorry her daughter has to be the caretaker.
The conflict in the film happens when the object of Davinia’s fixation, Sterling, notices her and sets up a rendezvous. He’s a renegade without values. He steals, smokes, drinks, and has difficulty with his emotions. He’s got a swagger, a false self-confidence that leads him to use others. He is not particularly reflective. He lives for the now. Peter Vack, as Sterling, is absolutely drop-dead charismatic in this role – nailing the ethos with perfection.
Davinia, superbly played with a shy naturalness by Natalia Dyer, on the other hand, is delicate. She asks questions about life, love and their future. These queries are too hard for Sterling to answer honestly. When she asks Sterling what he thought of her when he first met her he responds with a compliment about her beauty. She adds on that she is smart.
It is this smartness that proves to be the turning point in the film. Albert Camus has written that it’s only once we are confronted with life’s ugliness, once we experience tragedy or when we are in crisis – this is the catalyst that can help us gain insight to life – this is the growing opportunity.
Many girls, blinded by love, lust and excitement, will let themselves be buried. In martyrdom women throughout time have accepted the pecking order, stayed with their man to “help” him, and swallowed their humiliation. But Davinia sees herself as smart – and what does “smart” do?
I have so much to say about this film. “I Believe in Unicorns” is beautifully and tenderly crafted by someone who must not be too far away from this kind of life journey. Meyerhoff knows what she is talking about. She intersperses dreams, a special fantasy world, nature graphics and a variety of cinematic techniques that also shows she knows the art of filmmaking and is an early master.
PORTLAND FILM FESTIVAL
Wednesday, Aug. 27, 7 p.m. at McMenamins Mission Theater
CAMBRIDGE FILM FESTIVAL
Saturday, Aug. 30 — Arts Picturehouse,
Sunday, Aug. 31 — Emmanuel College
Cambridge, United Kingdom
SYDNEY UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL
Q&A with director Leah Meyerhoff
Saturday, Sept. 6 and 7 — The Factory Theatre, Sydney, Australia
Writer/Director: Leah Meyerhoff
Producer: Heather Rae
Executive Producers: Allison Anders, David Kupferberg, Castille Landon, Robin Leland
Director of Photography: Jarin Blaschke
Production Designer: Katherine Rusch
Lead Animator: Josh Mahan
Cast: Natalia Dyer, Peter Vack, Julia Garner, Amy Seimetz and Toni Meyerhoff
Composer: Sasha Gordon
Runtime: 80 minutes
Official Teaser: http://bit.ly/uniteaser
Official Clip: http://bit.ly/uniclip
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