The camera pans slowly in on a field as we hear the grunting and exertion of Ben Hardy’s Luke as he hooks up with a woman in the tall grass in the opening moments of James Krishna Floyd & Sally El Hosaini’s hypnotic and romantic film Unicorns. We shouldn’t be here, but after they finish, she walks away, leaving him alone and surprisingly disconnected. “Let’s keep is casual,” she says as she tosses her hair back and disappears. Unicorns is a film about finding a deep, meaningful connection with someone when you aren’t even looking. It’s fearlessly queer, and features a remarkable, charismatic debut from Jason Patel.
Luke is stressed trying to provide for his son on his mechanic’s salary, and his father, who runs the garage with him, offers no assistance. After downing a few drinks, Luke stumbles in a different bar–loud and thumping–where he sets eyes on Aysha, a beautiful drag performer. Luke is transfixed. He is tipsy not just on booze but by the atmosphere–lights swirling and twisting almost as much as Aysha’s dancing.
Aysha sees Luke watching her from the stage, and the connection is immediate and sexy. They chat outside before they share a kiss, but, moments afterwards, Luke realizes that Aysha is a drag queen and not a cisgender woman. He flees in his confusion. When she shows up at his garage needing rides to gigs, he is reluctant but clearly still attracted to Aysha. He agrees, at first, for the money but those drives are long and his attraction to her grows as they talk about their lives. What starts as being protected by a piece of rough trade is rooted in something curious and unexpectedly emotion. “I’m meant to be driven,” Aysha jokes early on.
What could have been a fluffy or cheesy romance has many things at stake, and that’s what makes Unicorns such an important piece of new queer cinema. Ashiq (Aysha’s persona out of drag) is warned by her brother to be careful after hearing whispers of Aysha performing, and there are many other queens jealous of Aysha’s nerve and charisma on stage. This film comes at the time where American drag and trans individuals are being attacked by legislation targeting their bodies and their rights. Unicorns is fearless in how it shows that love and understanding can truly battle hatred and confusion.
The lighting and cinematography are driven by character. Luke’s life is filled with dark greys and blues while Aysha’s world is bathed in color–reds, purples, golds–and it always changes. Even the vape pen she pulls on changes color and lights up her face.
Patel is extraordinary and so easy to fall in love with. Their voice is soft and gentle, but that doesn’t mean Aysha is a pushover or doormat–she can roar when she needs to. Aysha is confident and holds your attention in the palm of her hand, but she is hiding pain from not being accepted by her family or community. The way Patel mixes those together on their face while holding their own opposite Hardy and those green eyes is a thing of beauty to behold. As Hardy’s Luke begins to open his heart, you can see his body relaxing.
Unicorns is unlike anything you’ve ever seen, because we have never thought of honoring a drag love story in such a balanced way. If this film was made twenty (or even ten) years ago, it would solely focus on the straight, white male who enters a beautiful world and not give the weight to the drag performer.
Unicorns is gorgeously acted, but, most importabntly, its heart is defiant in a world full of ugliness.