As anyone who’s spent time on digital dating portals knows, unicorns are in. Referring to the rarely seen, conventionally hot, usually white bisexual girl of legend who’s up for a threesome, a “unicorn” is sought by hetero couples and straight men alike (though according to myth, a unicorn can only be tamed by a female virgin). Her existence, the embodiment of a pornographic cool-girl fantasy, is, like a unicorn’s, doubtful and extremely desirable. Go further back in natural-history texts, from the centuries when they were believed to be real, and the legends become even more powerful and strange: A unicorn’s ivory heals wounds and wards off evil; those who drink from its horn are cured of illness; a sip of its blood grants eternal life and damnation.
See also: Our I Believe in Unicorns movie review
Rarer even than a unicorn sighting is an honest, complicated portrayal of adolescent female sexuality on film, but in her debut feature, writer and director Leah Meyerhoff has done just that. Her gorgeous, slightly gothic I Believe in Unicorns uses the visual vocabulary of American love songs to play a sweet, bitter tune. Imagine the blur and glow of a music video — a dream that’s easy to hum along to, to believe in for three minutes. But this movie is 80 minutes long, and at that length bubblegum rhythms become hard to chew. Meyerhoff’s lead, Davina (Natalia Dyer), is sixteen but wishes she were older, freer. Davina has a sad, small home life with her sick single mother, and a blossoming internal landscape filmed in stop-motion — it’s populated by papier-mâché unicorns and dragons with sparklers in their mouths. (I Believe in Unicorns opens at the IFC Center and is available on demand starting June 1.)
These scenes of whimsy make clear that Davina — whose name suggests the heavens, the impossible — is still a child, though she’s beginning to look like an adult. In an early scene, scared and defiant and wearing a miniskirt, Davina hides behind a vending machine, waiting to meet up with the long-haired older boy, Sterling (Peter Vack), whose mercurial attentions give weight and narrative to the emotional intensity Davina has so far experienced only inside her own head. Yes, she is literally asking for it — and at first, it’s good.
Sterling — imagine silver, purity, hard metal — is old enough to buy lottery tickets. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Davina asks him. Sterling insists he’s already grown, then barrages her with french fries. At any rate, he has a car, and he ditches his friends and their punk shows to head west with Davina. The two lovers play dress-up with plastic gas station toys, feed horses, and fuck. Briefly, Davina’s reality is as beautiful and playful as her imaginings, though it keeps a hard edge. Sterling insists that she climb to the tallest rung of a fence, close her eyes, and fall backwards, trusting that he’ll catch her. They are in a golden field, miles from anyone. If Davina refuses to play this game, she becomes a shrew, a killjoy, certainly no cool girl, no longer the manic pixie dream archetype she’s edging toward. (What teenager doesn’t audition for the roles the world is casting?) If she gets hurt, a hospital is hours away; if she doesn’t, Sterling will have briefly succeeded at playing the savior, the hero, the man.
At home Davina is in charge. A moving sequence shows her rolling down her mother’s stockings in a silent house, lifting the older woman from the floor. Of course Davina wants someone else to be the caretaker, to assume responsibility and risk. She’s just a child! When Davina and Sterling shoplift, the disparity in their ages becomes stark despite the escapade’s giddy tone. Sterling, a legal adult, could go to jail for what he’s done; when he stashes the loot in Davina’s bag, he implicates her, but since she’s both underage and a girl, the repercussions, even if she’s caught, won’t be nearly as bad. Already Davina knows to stay silent and clean up this man’s messes.
One of the film’s most radical scenes occurs early on, when Davina’s at school. Her female friend Cassidy (Julia Garner) asks what kissing Sterling is like. With great seriousness, Davina leans in and gives Cassidy a brief, deep kiss of her own before pulling shyly back, unsure of what to say. Is Davina a unicorn? No, she’s just complicated, something that movies are still often unwilling to admit is true of women, and especially of girls. A great deal of the scene’s power comes from the girls’ lack of performance, their distance from the male gaze. Their kiss is not titillating behind-the-scenes footage because the girls aren’t auditioning for any role. Instead they’re writing a new, authentically vulnerable scene into the script of their friendship. Cassidy is curious about an experience she hasn’t had yet, and Davina tries to show her, as truly and directly as she can.
A nymphomaniac is another kind of unicorn. In Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, slim, voracious, underage Joe (Stacy Martin), having just lost her virginity in humiliating and perfunctory fashion to a greasy Shia LaBeouf, enters a competition with her best friend, another adolescent girl, to board a train and fuck as many men as possible before arriving at the final destination; the prize is a bag of chocolate sweets. These young women are performing as much for themselves and each other as for any man, though Nymphomaniac is filtered almost entirely through the male gaze.
Von Trier directs, and in the film’s frame narrative Joe recounts her sexual escapades to an older male rescuer. The conventional structure is intentional — both von Trier and Joe are keenly aware of the role performance plays in desire. In a world that often reduces women to sexual objects and then shames them for behaving as such, women who choose to wield their sexuality can find a great deal of power in it, particularly the power to manipulate men. When you’re not just a woman but a minor, with little control over your own life, it’s a revelation to find that your mouth and thighs can convince married businessmen with millions invested in respectability to drop trou. Getting an older boy with a car to give you a ride is even easier, and it doesn’t take a unicorn.
In and out of her dream sequences, Davina wears a series of delicate, flirtatious skirts, while Sterling dresses like a cross between Kurt Cobain and James Dean, projecting decades of inherited masculine anger. The sexual and emotional tension builds between them, their days marked with laughter and rolling green hills that always seem to be blocking out impending sunset. It’s always the golden hour, but the days grow shorter. Lying in beds, haylofts, and backseats, Davina performs the affectionate acts she’s learned, maybe from movies — stroking Sterling’s face, asking if he loves and misses her. Meyerhoff shows the viewer two young beautiful bodies rolling and twining together, Sterling pressing his mouth to Davina’s crotch and giving her pleasure, Davina climbing on top of him and controlling the rhythm. It’s impossible to rely on familiar narratives here, to suggest that Davina is just being taken advantage of — or that Sterling is free of scrutiny and social fear. His outfits alone suggest that he’s performing as furiously as Davina, striving to stay in control of every situation. What room does he have to be vulnerable, to doubt? Are the audiences he’s performing for — the viewer, his friends, himself — so stunted by the vocabulary of film that they can only imagine a love that’s gorgeous and tortured?
Davina doesn’t understand Sterling’s cruel streak, which arises whenever she steps out of line, threatening to make their easy cinematic romance human and hard. Her desire — and her performed desire, showing up at a rock show and expecting recognition when Sterling just wants to drink with his friends — for romance and tenderness offends him to violence. By the time he hurts Davina — is it rape? is it one of the few emotional tools he’s been taught to use? — viewers may be half in love with him, too, but not at Davina’s expense. Vack is sexy and charming, but Dyer carries the film, the camera holding her expressive face in close-up, wavering between pain and wonder. Her emotional presence, even when retreating to the fading landscape of her childhood, is complicated and wonderful, suggesting a kind of intelligence that is not so much adult as ancient. It’s the look of a young woman listening to her own body and believing herself.