Netflix’s new drama wanders through twists and turns, but rewards with a searing portrayal of mental illness.
Horse Girl, starring and co-written by Alison Brie and directed by Jeff Baena, grabs your attention. The teaser trailer packs tons of odd and significant scenes into a disjointed narrative, none of which really explain the horse. Having been similarly beguiled by Brie and Baena’s last collaboration, the hilariously blasphemous The Little Hours, I fired it up.
It was every bit as weird and intense as expected. Unfortunately, it also meandered and bogged down early, making Horse Girl a fraught recommendation.
Horse Girl (2020)
Sarah (Alison Brie) exists on the margins of her own life. She has a sweet but surface-level friendship with her co-worker at a fabric store (Molly Shannon). Her attempts to make friends at her Zumba class get repeatedly ignored. She haunts a horse ranch where you feel she is one visit removed from being escorted away by the police.
To make matters worse, Sarah begins to lose track of time. After a series of disturbing dreams where she wakes up in random locations, Sarah struggles to discover what is happening to her.
The Plot Thickens.
Brie and Baena craft an intricate story. Horse Girl wields both a scalpel and a sledgehammer when it comes to drawing you into Sarah’s plight. Right up to the final act, the film maintains a balancing act between the explanations for the odd events. Is Sarah truly being tormented by alien abductions? Is it just the mental fictions of a lonely and isolated young woman with a taste for science fiction and fantasy? Perhaps it is the specter of mental illness that hangs over her mother and grandmother manifesting.
The film keeps all of the balls in the air deftly. A large part of this is the excellent work of Alison Brie. Drawing on personal experience (her own family struggled with schizophrenia and mental illness) she imbues Sarah’s story with telling details. Having played oddball characters for laughs on projects like Community and The Lego Movie, she pivots here to play Sarah’s quirks as anguishing and unsettling.
The Plot Curdles.
As much as I loved all of the character work and detail for Sarah’s character, I felt that the film lingers too long in places. There are many elements of Sarah’s life that show aspects of her isolation, oddness, and anguish. Each adds a facet, but the film bogs down by spending too much time on them in the early stages. By spending too long on each element, and returning to elements again and again without a new wrinkle, it goes from sympathetic to cringe-inducing. It felt a bit like embarrassment porn.
Horse Girl felt like two experiences welded together. The first, a slightly voyeuristic exercise in watching a socially awkward person struggle and fail spectacularly left me cold. The temptation to engage the fast forward button for the first hour was constant.
The second experience, of a surreal mystery and unflinching look at schizophrenia from the dual perspective of a sufferer and a survivor, was riveting. The visuals look fantastic, with moments that straddle works like Jacob’s Ladder and David Lynch’s Lost Highway. It was so well executed that I can almost forget how painfully protracted the first hour was. Almost.
At the end of the day, I cautiously recommend Horse Girl. It’s execution is flawed by a tedious and uncomfortable set-up, but elements of that set-up allow for a brutal engagement with thorny topics. Alison Brie really knocks it out of the park; her portrayal of Sarah stands alongside other fantastic looks at broken and unreliable main characters such as Christian Bale in The Mechanic or Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia. Horse Girl takes patience, but rewards you with an indelible experience.