Leah Meyerhoff explores excitement, danger, fantasy in I Believe in Unicorns

Little girls love unicorns as surely as big girls love bad boys. The stark contrast between fantasies built on innocence and those driven by lust seems the driving force between Leah Meyerhoff’s first feature film I Believe in Unicorns, which screens at the Sarasota Film Festival next week. A compelling exploration of character combined with a strikingly different use of stop-motion cinematic techniques sets the movie apart and brings audiences a glimpse at Meyerhoff’s distinct point of view as a filmmaker.

“I am hoping a 16-year-old version of myself finds this film. I wish I’d seen this when I was coming of age,” Meyerhoff says.The film follows the character of Davina (played by 16-year-old Natalia Dyer) as she escapes into fantasy while dealing with very adult challenges. Throughout the film, the character sometimes appears simultaneously mature and naive, a young woman tasked with taking care of a wheelchair-bound mother but who still retreats into a world of plastic toy dinosaurs and talking unicorns. It seems no wonder how Davina could be lured by the gaze of Sterling (Peter Vack), a young man clearly more experienced in many ways of the world but absolutely lacking in any sense of responsibilities.

The story follows along as Davina loses her virginity and then runs off with Sterling, pushed forward by a belief in a storybook romance as fanciful as her visions of dragons. No viewer expects this love story to have a fairytale ending, but it is clear through most of the film that Davina clearly does, and that she clings to that vision of the future in spite of every signal that she should let go of that dream.

The story is biographical in many ways, but not just from Meyerhoff’s own life. The director also collaborated with Dyer about her own life. “She told me stories from her own experience as a junior in high school,” Meyerhoff relates. The end result has some elements from the director’s life, some from the actress’s, and some that are pure fiction. And Meyerhoff has no interest in sharing which stories come from whose life and which are made up whole cloth.

Filming with an actress who was underage while making a story with such mature content brought its own challenges. “It definitely was a delicate process working with a minor, not just because of the limited hours on set but because of laws on nudity and sex scenes. It was both logistically and emotionally delicate, but Natalia as an actress is incredibly smart, confident and mature.”

The most striking elements of them visually, though, are not the sex scenes but the many interludes shot using stop motion animation. The interesting cinematic choice proved time consuming, Meyerhoff says, but it also gave a distinct look to the film and creates a strange glimpse into the lead character’s mind. The sequences demonstrate both an artistic sensibility and an air of madness, a juvenile outlook combined with a sometimes self-destruction obsession with a world that cannot truly exist.

“Everything goes back to the script and this character,” Meyerhoff says. “This is a different artistic girl. To form her perspective, and when visualizing how this character would see the world and what her daydreams would be like, I liked this hand-crafted, very visceral textured quality.”

The mother in the film is played by Toni Meyerhoff, Leah’s mother. The elder Meyerhoff has multiple sclerosis and has been wheelchair-bound as far back as the younger can remember. But in the introductory sequence to the film, you see old footage of the actress walking, pieced together from actual home videos back when the director was still an infant. “Piecing that together, that was the first time I had ever seen my mother walking, so it was a very personal sequence to me,” the director says.

That old footage also sets the visual tone for the feature and shows that this world Davina lives in, while a contemporary one, allows the teenage protagonist to become consumed with analog imagery. From a Polaroid camera she uses to take pictures to the 16mm film frames that encapsulate her visions of unicorns and dragons, the girl’s outlook is one clearly from a different time.

The film arrives in Sarasota after screening at South By Southwest and a number of other regional festivals. It also has plenty of talent attached with Florida connection, including an on-screen role for Florida native actress Amy Seimetz and producing credit for Bradenton native filmmaker Castille Landon.

I Believe in Unicorns screens at the Sarasota Film Festival on Friday, April 11, at 5:15pm and Sunday, April 13, at 2:15pm.

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