Unicorn City is a 2012 independent film, a quirky comedy based on the lives of fantasy role players. It was aired at film conventions, comic conventions, and gaming conventions, and appears to have since gone to DVD and streaming services. The film was written and directed by Bryan Lefler; though this is his first credit in either role, he was a script supervisor on Napoleon Dynamite, and while I haven’t seen that film to compare, his experience on that clearly shows, as the script lacks at least some of the roughness of a lot of first-time screenwriters.
Unicorn City is the story of Voss (Devin McGinn), a slacker who spends his free time playing a knockoff of Dungeons and Dragons and skipping out on his current job in hopes of finding his dream job. His brother Jeff (Kevin Weisman), who runs the taco stand Voss works at, is about ready to throw him out. His guildmaster does throw him out after a confrontation over how the game is run. He has little going for him, until he scores an interview with “Warlocks of the Beach”, a major gaming company. At the interview, he’s told that he’s one of several candidates, all of whom are saying pretty much the same thing. If he can distinguish himself by showing some genuine leadership ability, he can get the job. And so he comes up with the idea of Unicorn City: a live-action role playing game, where his friends and fellow players can hang out and play their game in real life, away from the interference of the city, and never have to leave the world they’ve created.
Creating a fantasy world is a novel approach to joining the working world.
The characters who flock to Unicorn City aren’t just geeks and loners, they’re the extreme fringe of nerddom. I am not disparaging role-playing gamers when I say this; I’d be lying if I denied being a geek myself, and while I’ve never known any live-action role-players, I’ve known some gamers and have been known to roll a die or build a card deck myself. No, when I describe these characters as exceptionally awkward, I am comparing them to their real-life equivalents, and finding them, at least in some cases, just a bit unbelievable. That a geek might be a loner and might be awkward around people is understandable, but these characters are all also awkward around each other in such a way that suggests that they’re not even really friends. Even the geekiest of geeks get comfortable around friends, and most of these characters don’t. However, this does lessen as the film goes on, so perhaps it’s simply to be taken as an indication that while they game together, they don’t necessarily know each other well. What helps keep this film from turning into “laugh at the nerds” is that the characters are portrayed sympathetically, and even the dorkiest of them isn’t treated as a subject for derision. The humor mostly comes out of the situations they’re in, aside from some early scenes — though Voss, despite being perhaps the least nerdy of the bunch, does get into a few stereotypical nerd-victim situations.
There are several interesting and amusing bit parts in the film; however, as far as major characters are concerned, there are really only a few for the audience to get to know. The main thrust of the storyline is Voss organizing the game along with his “secretary”, Marsha (Jaclyn Hales). As Voss, Devin McGinn is fairly convincing as a young slacker who has conflicted ideals — he genuinely believes in the fun of the idea he’s put together, but at the same time is shamelessly exploiting his friends to get his dream job. Hales, as Marsha, is a shy girl who wants to get together with Voss, but is too bashful to take the direct approach — and Voss is too self-absorbed to catch on. Hales’ performance is one of the most natural in the film, being both awkward and endearing without seeming to try for either. Voss’s and Marsha’s goals are counter-pointed with the interference of the former guildmaster, “Shadowhawk”, a guy who is willing to cheat to win over his own players, wants to ruin Voss’s game out of spite, and wants to hook up with Marsha despite being twenty years older. He’s played by veteran character Jon Gries; Gries has some experience playing weaselly characters, and he excels here as the incredibly slimy “Shadowhawk”. Just about every minute he’s on the screen will make a viewer feel like they need a bath.
Beauty and the Sleaze
There are some light comic antics, and a few laughs here and there. Very little of it will provide big laughs for most audience members, though it’s possible that gamers will find it more amusing due to a closer connection to the characters and situations in the film. The plot isn’t particularly deep, but is sufficiently novel that it should be entertaining for most people. Though the romance subplot is fairly standard, it’s at least reasonably believable, and the rest of the plot actually has a few twists along the way that people may not see coming. In the end, to use gaming parlance, Unicorn City isn’t a critical hit… but it’s not a critical miss either.