How do you even begin to talk about Horse Girl? The new Netflix film from director Jeff Baena, co-written by Baena and star Alison Brie, dares you to classify it. It exists in its own little world, blending genres with surprisingly strong results. What starts off seeming like a quirky rom-com quickly morphs into something far more disturbing, and strange.
Sarah (Brie), the titular Horse Girl, is almost painfully shy. Soft-spoken, hiding behind her bangs, she’s overly polite and pleasant to everyone she meets. But she has no real support system. She doesn’t even really have friends. Sure, she’s friendly with her coworker (Molly Shannon) at the craft store. And her roommate (Debby Ryan) treats her kindly. But none of these people are really her friends, and Sarah spends her life working, visiting stables to see her old horse, or watching her favorite show, Purgatory, which looks like a kind of mash-up of Bones and Supernatural.
When Sarah’s birthday rolls around, her roommate has to practically force her to have some fun, inviting over her boyfriend’s roommate (John Reynolds) with the hopes of setting Sarah up with him. The two hit it off, and Sarah – with a little help from controlled substances – is able to come out of her shell a bit. But what looks to be a fresh start for Sarah instead triggers a new set of problems. Sarah begins having weird dreams where she finds herself in a bright white room. And she also keeps losing time, and waking up in places with no memory of how she got there.
There’s a history of mental illness in Sarah’s family (which Brie based on her own family’s medical history), and it would be very easy to assume Sarah has inherited that instability. But Sarah doesn’t think so. She begins to suspect there’s something grander at work here – something with potential supernatural implications. Horse Girl goes about introducing all of these elements organically. The early portion of the film is quite funny, and the scenes with Sarah and her potential new boyfriend are sweet. And even as Sarah begins to grow confused and paranoid, Horse Girl keeps up the pretext of humor. But before we know it, the tone has shifted considerably, and the film has become much darker, and much more disturbing.
Brie handles all of these tonal shifts expertly. She’s so sweet and unassuming in the first chunk of the film that watching her mental state deteriorate is particularly unsettling. One scene, where she has a complete breakdown by the grave of her mother and rattles off a laundry list of conspiracy theories to explain her current state, is brilliantly acted and genuinely frightening. And even though there are plenty of supporting characters (Paul Reiser!), this is Brie’s show – she’s in nearly every single scene.
The script, by Baena and Brie, is delightfully ambiguous. One of the smartest choices here is to not spell anything out. For instance: we never really learn why the horse she continues to visit is no longer her horse. We catch glimpses of a moment in a flashback where we see a young acquaintance of Sarah’s thrown from a horse and injured, and anytime Sarah comes around the stables, the owner (Toby Huss) acts nervous, clearly uncomfortable at her presence. It’s an uncommented-upon detail that goes a long way towards establishing who Sarah is, and how the people in her life perceive her.
Horse Girl starts to gallop off the track in its third act, and while Brie’s performance remains strong, the narrative around her begins to collapse. Part of that is intentional, drawing us into Sarah’s headspace. But when the script starts trying to provide some answers to some of its many mysteries, it comes up short. Horse Girl works best when it remains elusive.
/Film Rating: 8 out of 10
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