“I will spread my wings and smother you with a million tiny feathers,” a teen says to her first lover in I Believe in Unicorns, the confident feature debut from writer-director Leah Meyerhoff.
That teen, Davina (Natalia Dyer), speaks that promise in a dreamy gush, and her lover, a worryingly cool/handsome/older rock-club mainstay (Peter Vack), plays along, dishing up a couple silly, epic things he’ll do back to her. But he’s only a guest in the fairy-wing reveries that command Davina’s
inner life — the film’s drama lies in the simple question of whether he’s just hanging out there, taking advantage of an underage beauty, or whether he’s truly sharing with her something grand.
Meyerhoff conjures Davina’s headspace with slow-motion fireworks, stop-motion unicorns, and shimmering, sun-touched underwater photography. When the affair turns dark, the unicorn faces off with a dragon, and Davina sees herself overgrown with tangled underbrush; meanwhile, in the real world, she and her boyfriend (or is he?) bound across an East Bay and Northern California that’s almost as beautiful as her fantasies.
For all its expressive interiority, the film is most arresting when Davina has a go at the interpersonal equivalent of dragon-slaying: The second time the boy tells her, “You’re beautiful,” she adds, “And smart, too” — stating it flatly, not as a question but as a thing he should have noticed. Too bad you can’t high-five a screen.
The performances are strong, the imaginary visions are suggestive and fleeting, and the film as a whole is swoony, tender, skittish, a little scary — in short, this is what young love feels like. More Meyerhoff, please!