Davinia (Natalia Dyer) awakens on her 16th birthday. Reflecting on this day, it is a huge turning point; “There is so much I want to say, but don’t know how to start,” she whispers to herself in her bedroom. I Believe in Unicorns written and directed by the 2014 SXSW award nominated Leah Meyerhoff, distills how a young teenage girl confronts the inner and outer aspects of her life as she negotiates cultural and physical reality, assesses her identity, then comes up with her own ethos according to how she will form herself and her beliefs in the future.
When Meyerhoff first introduces us to Davinia we recognize that she is struggling to translate her inner world of mystical fantasy and beauty into a captured reality where she can savor and enjoy the whisperings of a preternatural, fairy-tale existence and make it real and permanent in her corporeal life. Is this possible? She is willing to risk what is most precious to her, her innocence, in effecting the transformation of unifying her inner and outer worlds, converting the vaporous, insubstantial and fantastic into a reality she enjoys.
Meyerhoff crystallizes Davinia’s enchanted world through the pastel, colorful and whimsical loveliness mirrored in the decor of her spare, princess-styled bedroom. She symbolizes Davinia’s interior as she envisions a fanciful and adorable miniature unicorn and representative supernal tropes, accompanied by twinkling, airy, and ethereal music that scores the sequences when the stop animation unicorn appears. These are the playthings of childhood and also symbolic of Davinia’s imagination which conjures and communicates with mystical realms.
During the film, at major turning points in Davinia’s decisions and psychic transformation, Meyerhoff intersperses scenes of glory and the entrancing incorporeal. In one of these pictorial sequences, Davinia is fragile, delicate, and alone in a background of bursting lights representing an unearthly aspect; there she twirls and moves sparklers in her hands, glowing, radiant. In another example, Davinia appears other-worldly in a filmy, gossamer dress, like a sprite or muse (evocative of those in Botticelli’s Primavera). She delicately dances in a field; she is like a fairy, the dance is faintly ritualistic in that she is the royal star celebrating her own creative abandonment. And there is even a live unicorn which we suspect is a white horse with an attached, artifically realized horn. But somehow, Meyerhoff implants it in a transition that makes sense; Davinia is on the verge of realizing her dreams.
Meyerhoff includes these clips to show Davinia’s vision of life for herself where she is free to create and in which she is the master of her own elusive, insubstantial and magical world. There, she commands objects to appear, adhere, or fall apart and disappear, obeisant to whatever she desires. Davinia has a rich, powerful, inner life which we surmise is a counterbalance to reality expressed by the careworn, unadorned decor of the place where she lives with her mom. In these rooms we see that Davinia has little of her own authority and is controlled by physical, material circumstance. Her land of sorcery enables her to deal with the drudge hurdle of caring for her mom who is debilitated physically, spends her time in a wheelchair, and must be lifted to the bed or to the couch if she falls.
Though Meyerhoff never shows her mom’s condition beyond Davinia rolling therapeutic stockings over her mom’s deformed feet, we understand that Davinia must care for her mom’s personal hygiene, clean, cook, and do the chores. Though we see she loves her mom, the fact remains that this is a tremendous burden for a teenager. The two women are alone: one whose fantastic inner world is opened up to us, the other whose inner life is shuttered and only the external situation abides. Here are the tropes of the supernatural, spiritual, fantastic realm and the material, mortal, physical universe. Meyerhoff’ has chosen to focus upon Davinia for she wishes to concentrate completely on the struggle (between these forces), that is manifesting in her at this turning point in her life, though the mother (Toni Meyerhoff, the director’s mom), who says little, is an amazing, stolid and vibrant character.
The contrasts between Davinia’s ever-present hard realities and Meyer’s recreation of Davinia’s elusive, and alluring world of imaginative witchery which fuels her inner happiness hold the thematic points of the narrative. The two realms battle for Davinia’s heart and mind until one wins out while she takes her first foray into understanding the deeper parts of her identity as a woman and relates to an older male whom she designates to be her prince unicorn. This is Sterling (a beautifully rendered and seductive portrayal by the charismatic Peter Vack). Davinia selects Sterling who is a skateboard whiz, over the objections of her friend who refers to him as a loser. Using Sterling as her foil, Davinia will embark on a dangerous journey of self-discovery transforming her mysticism into a tangible universe, if possible. In this she becomes the heroine of her own myths as she seeks to establish her being apart from the school culture and society which others her age have readily allowed to define them. We know how different from these ordinary kids Davinia is from her unicorn confabulations and her friendship with Cassidy (played by Julia Garner), also ethereal looking, who at one point, Davinia kisses on the mouth.
Davinia is a child-woman, wise, strong, willful, reliant (with regard to her mother), with a procreative imagination. But within her lies the element of self-betrayal. We understand this in the myth she configures to discover herself and meld both her inner and outer worlds and in her choice of Sterling as her partner to take her away from the familiarity of their homes, school and hangouts. Their couplings and relationship stir up Davinia’s confrontation with herself as the battle between mystical and corporeal realms commences in earnest. In an attempt to transform her circumstances, Davinia conjures Sterling and psychologically tries to mesmerize him into her unicorn prince. She lures him into “taking her away to anywhere from here,” assured of him because he has told her she is beautiful and he says she is like a princess in a fairy tale. Clearly, he is seduced by the innocence she has given him with her body and he is now entranced by her imagination with the promise of adventure, romance and freedom. However, Davinia is provocative and the two realms struggle within her. This adventure will show her who she is and help her decide for she does not know how to maintain her relationship with her unicorn/prince honestly and with understanding and empathy.
Meyerhoff foreshadows the coming conflicts which Davinia may unconsciously effect to help her make a decision about where her life stands during this dialogue. Davinia states, “They say it takes a virgin to tame a unicorn.” Sterling responds that maybe, “It takes a unicorn to tame a virgin.” Clearly, Sterling has become charged up for the challenge of “being her unicorn,” taming her and taking her along untraveled roads, living ad hoc, far away from their seedy lives and grimy place of initial coupling. Meyerhoff has Sterling deflower Davinia in a graffiti themed, unromantic, punk rock hangout where days later, after she doesn’t hear from him, she returns to once again enchant her unicorn with more sex. From then on they are together and in “love” though for both it is induced by the risk of adventure, the unfamiliar, and the mysterious ineffable something that exists between them.
What happens when they pursue their vision quest to “go somewhere” without a destination and just travel on remote roads and live sparingly until their finances are exhausted is Meyerhoff’s arc toward resolution. This finalizes a tale of innocence risked and lost. It is wasted because the innocent is hungering for a magical world that cannot manifest alongside reality or be melded with the corporeal, while Davinia is emotionally incomplete and not matured by experience. Indeed, it is clear to us that Davinia, herself, decides to end what she has begun by being cruel to her unicorn who “forgets” himself and cannot readily forgive her for using against him dark, hurtful truths from his past that he shared with her seeking sympathy. In her desire to hurt him is her own self-betrayal; Her cruelty leads to the destruction of her fantastical inner world which cannot be sustained in emotional turmoil. It must burn up, before it can be recalled to life in another form. This may be possible after Davinia has gained understanding, self-love, and self-forgiveness.
Meyerhoff’s’ strengths as a filmmaker are most predominant in her pictorial renderings and imaginative contrasts with fine edits of the realms of imagination and reality and the revelation of Davinia’s inner struggles with both. Though there is a gap in logic (we wonder how her mother is cared for when Davinia is away), and though it would have made sense to have an aide to be caring for her, the rest of the film is powerful and beautiful and the performances are memorable. The cinematography (shot in 16 mm) gives an other-worldly quality and is a standout. For her debut feature film, Meyerhoff shines.[amazon template=iframe image&asin= 0836230205]