By Candice Carella | Drama
A woman who hits rock bottom connects with a teenaged boy battling severe depression.

Elise has battled depression all her life, and has recently hit rock bottom again. In the midst of her private battle, her mentor and friend Marlon suggests she connect with Jonah, a teenager battling severe depression of his own.

Cynical and wary, Elise thinks that nothing she says will make a difference. Her initial conversation with Jonah is forced and uncomfortable on both sides. But as they talk, it turns into a genuinely authentic connection — and they may turn out to be the sign the other was looking for.

Directed by Candice Carella and written by Leah McKendrick, this heartfelt short drama is not just about depression, suicide and the most difficult experiences of human emotion. It’s also about how we talk about difficult feelings and states of being, and how we talk to people going through these things — focusing more on what to say instead of giving them the space to be open about what they’re experiencing.

One of Elise’s dilemmas is not knowing what to say to Jonah. She doesn’t believe she can say what she calls “the thing”: those magical words that will lift Jonah out of hopelessness and pull him back from the brink.

Yet for a film about not knowing what to say, the writing is solidly character-driven, with a searching, sometimes searing honesty, fearlessness about delving into darker emotions and a thread of mordant humor that adds sarcastic levity to the difficult subject matter. There’s also a similar pared-down simplicity to the visuals, letting the dialogue and performances power the momentum.

Actor Hilary Curwen — who also produced the film alongside Caity Ware — anchors the story as Elise, combining gallows humor with intelligence, empathy and a wry, almost grizzled air of experience. She and fellow actor Markees Christmas as Jonah develop a wary rapport, and their conversational parrying and feints also capture the layers of defensiveness and shame that must be peeled back to talk honestly about what they’re going through and experiencing. But when Elise jumps into this conversational space and says something almost harsh, she drives Jonah away — and then fears the worst will happen.

Spiky, honest and ultimately heartwarming, “Unicorns” is unafraid of being earnest, open, and truthful about the massive black hole that is mental illness, particularly depression. It’s unafraid of finding dark humor in this terrain, and of wearing its heart on its sleeve. In the end, Jonah and Elise aren’t “cured,” as Elise so acidly puts it — but they also aren’t alone. They can talk honestly with one another, and perhaps more importantly, feel listened to and heard. They have found a space with one another where they don’t have to pretend, which provides some degree of relief, understanding and connection in a world that tiptoes around the darkness that they feel within.

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