Marking the feature film debut of writer/director Leah Meyerhoff, I Believe in Unicorns is an evocative and richly layered film that calls to mind the likes of Badlands and Thirteen, telling the complex coming of age story of a young girl in small-town America desperate to escape the bleak realities of her life.
The film stars Natalia Dyer as Davina, a teenager whose father left her at a very young age to look after her wheelchair-bound mother. Davina’s home life looks particularly grim but she has a vivid imagination and is prone to escaping into a beautiful stop-motion fantasy world filled with unicorns, dragons and all sorts of mythical creatures. When she meets Sterling (Peter Vack), an older skater kid, Davina’s escapist fantasies start to bleed into her real life as she and Sterling decide to run away together.
At first, their relationship seems like a dream as they lay together in flowery meadows expressing their desire to go “anywhere but here”. But the cracks first start to show after Davina, blind with first love, gives herself to Sterling sexually and he immediately discards her, becoming distant and cold. At this point it seems Sterling is just a predator but the character – and his relationship with Davina – are more complex than that, with some deep-rooted daddy issues manifesting in wild mood swings and a hair-trigger temper.
Nonetheless, the two take off together, driving through rural towns, eating at diners and crashing in empty motel rooms, their relationship proving a volatile mix of adolescent idealism and cruel emotional violence. Meyerhoff perfectly captures the insecurities and uncertainty of teenage life as Davina struggles to work out who she is and where she’s going in life which, at 16 years of age, not many people know. Davina is still in essence a girl and her behaviour is often very girlish but she throws herself into adult situations that she isn’t ready for, trying to fast-track the process of growing up and the more experienced but equally immature Sterling is hardly a stable influence on her.
The story itself isn’t particularly innovative but Meyerhoff imbues it with so much insight and harsh truths about the lives of teenagers and the casting of someone as young as Natalia Dyer, a genuine teenager, makes the film more authentic and the sexually frank material more surprising. Often films about teenagers are filled with actors clearly nearing thirty but the cast here feel like the real deal, especially Dyer who carries the film with a stunning and layered performance.
I Believe in Unicorns is a beautiful, lyrical and insightful film that depicts the harsh realities of teenagers trying desperately hard to grow up without really knowing what that means yet. It’s a complex and captivating character study that announces Meyerhoff as a fresh new voice in American independent cinema.