I Believe in Unicorns follows Davina (Natalia Dyer), a 16-year-old girl who is single-handedly taking care of her mother, Toni (played by the director’s mother, Toni Meyerhoff), bound to a wheelchair due to multiple sclerosis. But as earthbound as Toni is, Davina is not, often taken by imaginative daydreams and flights of fancy. Flights that manifest physically with the appearance of Sterling (Peter Vack), an older boy who is pure punk rock and palatable sexuality, yet he isn’t any less troubled than Davina.
I Believe in Unicorns is unabashedly a coming-of-age tale, intertwining Davina’s fantasies with her burgeoning sexual desires. It is in these moments that writer/director Leah Meyerhoff’s knack for emotion excels. Rather than paint these nubile moments in a golden hue of nostalgia and forced profundity, Meyerhoff wraps her protagonist in desire and uncertainty, unleashing both carnally and violently.
Meyerhoff achieves these moments by visualizing her story in three different forms, the first involving the cinematography and direction of the actors, which was shot over three weeks on Super 16mm. Once principal photography wrapped, Meyerhoff and her cinematographer, Jarin Blaschke, received a grant from Tribeca. They used those funds to film experimental and time-lapse shots of nature, which are sprinkled throughout the movie. Finally, Meyerhoff cannibalized the actor’s costumes (notably Sterling’s leather jacket) to make small dolls, which she used to create stop-motion animation, beautifully dramatizing Davina’s inner struggle. All three forms meld together beautifully, adding even more personality to a movie that is already steeped in handmade care.
For I Believe in Unicorns, Meyerhoff draws both from personal experience as well as personal desires. When the film played the Starz Denver Film Festival in 2014, Meyerhoff said in a Q&A that the film not only expresses her own experience but it also functions as the kind of movie she wished she could have seen as a young girl. This embrace of the alternative experience makes I Believe in Unicorns not simply a reflective movie but an inspirational one as well. Now streaming on Hoopla and TubiTV.