Film Review: _Unicorn City_ is Quick, Quirky and Quite Good

Unicorn City Trailer

Unicorn City has played the independent film festival circuit over the last year and had a limited theatrical release in Utah. It has won some honors as it has traveled the circuit, including a couple of Best Film honors at some Comedy Film festivals, and a best actress honor for one of its stars Jaclyn Hales (full disclosure: I’m friends with Jaclyn, and she’s been the lead actresses in one of my plays).  Since I don’t frequent the film festival circuit, and no longer live in Utah, I was disappointed to not be able to see it in theaters. However, with its recent release on Blu-ray/DVD/download, I was excited to finally be able to see the film. It had received some positive buzz and, as I said before, I knew some of the folks involved with the production. So with a quick download from Amazon, I nestled down with my wife for a relaxed movie night.

Now, granted, I’m not a huge fan a lot of modern comedies. I’m often very turned off by what’s churned out by the film factories behind Adam Sandler, Ashton Kutcher, Brittany Murphy, Kevin James, or  Seth Rogen. I sometimes enjoy the work of a Will Ferrel or Steve Carrel or Tina Fey, who are often great actors and comedians, yet even they are often brought in on projects that are utterly unworthy of their talents. I often find the kind of work these comedians are centered around an utter waste of time when I’ve been conned in giving them a chance. I’m not very charitable to low brow comedy, but it’s even worse when the movies aren’t even funny. I know that I’m not the target audience, but I’m often utterly bored by those kind of films.

However, there is a brand of comedy that I absolutely adore. Think Napoleon Dynamite. Or Lars and the Real Girl. Or Juno (or really anything with Ellen Page in it). Or The Fantastic Mr. Fox. That kind of indie, smart, witty, even hipster (did I just use that word?) kind of vibe to it. And a comedy usually has me in love on first sight if  it’s “quirky.” Oh, yes, I love me some quirk. Some of the comedies I love are even downright random, with comedy being pulled out of the most unexpected and bizarre of places. Now Unicorn City I have officially filed into that column of genuinely funny, smart, quirky films that I have created for the filing cabinet of my mind.

Of all the films mentioned above, I would think that Napoleon Dynamite is the most apt comparison to Unicorn City. It is in no way derivative of Napoleon, and is really using a more grounded style. Yet it does have that same kind of revelry, celebrating the oddities of those who may find themselves on the fringe, while still maintaining that strong affection for those being satirized that Napoleon Dynamite utilizes.

In this case, the societal fringe subject matter of Unicorn City are LARPers, or people who engage in Live Action Role Playing. You know, those people who dress up in fantasy costumes, go into the woods and beat each other up with padded swords. Not that I would know. Actually, I really wouldn’t, at least not from personal experience. I had some friends who were LARPers, and role playing gamers, and into that sort of thing, but I was too involved in theater and my writing to really follow them into the woods with a blunt  weapon and homespun medieval clothing. But here’s my deep dark secret… I really wanted to join in. I really wanted to.

I’ve tried to be decently “high brow” in my tastes through the years, but in my heart of hearts I’ve always been attracted by dragons and wizards and elf maidens. I sometimes look with envy upon those who had the tenacity and bravery to throw on some chain mail and follow their inner bliss. Oh, if any of that crowd had ever realized that I had been interested and invited me to go beat each other with padded weaponry… well, I may have never been extricated from such revelry. Thus Unicorn City had me at hello.

The plot is pretty straight forward, maybe even typical. A young man is discontent with his lot in life and utterly focused on his ambitions to rise, thus totally oblivious to the genuine love being offered to him by a lovely young woman. So which wins out, ambition or true love? It just happens to be that in this case the prototypical protagonist is a young man named Voss (played by Devin McGinn) who is a hard core role playing dude, with a temper, whose dream job is to work for Warlocks of the Beach (a clever spin based on the popular game company Wizards of the Coast, who make Dungeons and Dragons and the card game Magic: The Gathering, not to mention some excellent board games through their Avalon Hill imprint. Again, I was a jealous observer of this culture… I know these things). And the prototypical inspirational love interest in this case is Marsha (again, played by my lovely friend Jaclyn Hales).

Which leads me to my first piece of analysis. When I first saw the cast in the trailers, I thought they had totally miscast it. Jaclyn Hales, for one thing, is one of the most beautiful actresses I know, and they had her playing an awkward geekess? And Devin McGinn’s tough masculinity hardly seemed comparable to a lot of the reed-like, pock marked friends of mine who rolled dice at a table. Fortunately, I was dead wrong. Both these actors caught the vibe of the culture and really created characters that seemed believably immersed in the socially awkward, but oddly inspiring and infectious landscape of gamers, fantasy connoisseurs and LARPers. The supporting cast, many of them more believably cast from the outset, was also strong. None of them ever really delved in caricatures or stereotypes that often burden bigger Hollywood projects. While still retaining the quirkiness and hilarity of their subject matter, they showed nuance and grounded restraint in their portrayals, even during their most ridiculous moments.

Jaclyn Hales, especially, stole the show, as proved by the best actress award she won for the film at the LA Comedy Film Festival. She brought a believable (and sweet) awkwardness to Marsha that confirmed my belief in her talents. It was quite the transformation, actually, to see this gorgeous woman turn into a shy, unsure, almost mousy kind of girl. Of course, her loveliness still shown through, but in a different kind of way, much due her characteristic vulnerability that has been one of her chief trademarks in her acting style. Needless to say, if this film catches on in the larger gaming community, Jaclyn Hales will be hailed as a Geek Goddess.

The technical aspects of the films are all quite solid. Cinematography, editing, etc., I really didn’t see any problems. It wasn’t the kind of film to show off these particular elements, as an indie comedy isn’t given to cinematic fireworks, but it appears as if they had a talented team. Director Bryan Lefler can be proud of the results. Oh, and Emily Hope Price’s musical score was wonderful, bringing the right kind of indie whimsy to the film.  

Considering my own personal area of focus, a film’s screenplay is of particular importance to me, and I was very pleased with what I saw here. Screenwriters Cameron Dayton, Adrian Lefler, and Bryan Lefler crafted a strong script. The plot was pretty typical, but executed with skill, fun and creativity. The dialogue was quick and witty, the pace clipped along, the characters were well developed, and the emotional beats actually resonated (although they can thank an excellent cast for helping on that end). And I always appreciate it when a writer treats his subjects with respect, even affection. Even though it was a comedy, at no point did the characters feel like they were being used merely for cheap laughs. Light as the film was, the characters were real, and their escapist utopia of Unicorn City really mattered to them, just like they mattered to each other.

Although it deals with a very specific demographic, I think that Unicorn City can appeal to a broad audience, largely because it’s characters are portrayed as universally recognizable human beings going through a universal experience. Unicorn City is quick, quirky, fun and extremely enjoyable. I was thoroughly entertained and engaged. It truly made me want to out myself as a closeted fantasy lover and go chasing dragons in the wilderness.

Unicorn City can be purchased on Amazon.com via download (as my wife and I did), itunes, or of course, the traditional DVD/Bluray route. Their website is located at http://www.unicorncity.com/ . Unicorn City Trailer

About Mahonri Stewart

Mahonri Stewart is a Kennedy Center award winning playwright and screenwriter who resides in Arizona with his wife Anne and their two children. Mahonri recently graduated with an MFA in Dramatic Writing from Arizona State University, and received his bachelors in Theatre Arts from Utah Valley University. Mahonri has had over a dozen of his plays produced by theatre venues and organizations such as Utah Valley University, the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland, Arizona State University, the FEATS Theatre Festival in Switzerland, Zion Theatre Company, the Echo Theatre, BYU Experimental Theatre Company, Art City Playhouse, the Little Brown Theatre, the Binary Theatre, and the Off Broadway Theatre in Salt Lake City. Mahonri also loves superheroes, literature, film, board games, lasagna (with cottage cheese, not ricotta!), and considers himself an amateur Church Historian. He is also a tireless advocate for Mormon Drama.
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3 Responses to Film Review: _Unicorn City_ is Quick, Quirky and Quite Good

  1. Chris Bigelow says:

    I enjoyed this film too. It was one of those deals where a friend invited me to go see it on the spur of the moment, and I went into the theater having heard absolutely nothing about it beforehand, not even the general subject matter.

    I was a big-time D&Der, so of course I related to that aspect, although I was never once attracted to LARP. But I also enjoyed the film for similar reasons that I enjoy Napoleon Dynamite so much, that mix of absurdity and humanity in a real human setting.

    I don’t actually have as much stomach for quirk as you do, Mahonri. I loathe all the films of Wes Andersen, including Fantastic Mr. Fox. And I’ve loved much of the Apatow/Rogen type of raunch. So I’m a grosser person than you. But I liked this. Great review, and quite well written in its own right, and I don’t think I disagree with you anywhere on the actual movie itself. (My friend, by the way, perhaps the funniest person I’ve ever known, did NOT like the movie.)

    • Mahonri Stewart says:

      Yeah, raunch is definitely not me cuppa, Chris, while quirk is my comedic manna… but to each his own! :)

  2. Great review, Mahonri-

    I’m hopeful more people come to discover it through rentals and word-of-mouth, so it gains a larger audience and perhaps even a cult following. It’s one of the very few I can watch over and over, and still laugh.

    Have to ask Chris, though…your friend who did NOT like it…was he tired and cranky? I’ve had friends who didn’t like it the first time, but then their friends drag them to it again and they laugh their heads off on the second viewing. In that way, too, I think it was a bit like Napoleon Dynamite…he had to grow on some people.

    Also have to mention, the costumes were awesome!

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