An unusual and subversively inside-out indie drama about mental health anchored by a revelatory Alison Brie performance.
In many ways, Horse Girl (Netflix) is a subversion of your traditional Sundance indie drama about mental health, the kind of thing that uses increasing instability as a hook on which to hang a quirky genre picture. This film, directed by Jeff Baena and co-written by Alison Brie, who stars as the mousy paranoiac Sarah, treats its subject much more carefully, and takes it in much more challenging, welcome directions. Horse Girl begins as a detached examination of loneliness and madness and how the two intertwine, tracing one woman’s loosening grip on reality, before eventually diving headfirst into her delusions to ambiguous, inscrutable, and not entirely effective results.
The effect of watching Horse Girl is familiar, even pat, right up until it isn’t. Sarah is quiet and nervous; unable to connect with her Zumba classmates or self-absorbed roommate, Nikki (Debby Ryan), she takes sporadic comfort in a sympathetic work supervisor, Joan (Molly Shannon), an obsession with an offbeat TV series called Purgatory, and the horse she once owned. Horse Girl canters through Sarah’s own version of normalcy, allowing us to partake in her odd habits, fears, and burgeoning delusions. It becomes clear quickly that something is up with Sarah, and when the decision comes to either pull back and examine how her mental health crisis is harming her and causing her to suffer or to zoom in and indulge the oddities of a fractured psyche, it chooses the latter. This is, I think, to the film’s detriment.
Despite the presence of certain figures – including a truly sweet and unexpected suitor in John Reynolds – who’re there to ground Sarah, and to engender some trust in the audience, Horse Girl allows itself to descend into largely incoherent supernaturalism, positing that perhaps, at least for Sarah, some kind of inherited familial madness – she develops an obsession with her late grandmother – is a logical and welcome endpoint for lucid imaginings becoming indistinguishable from reality.
If it weren’t for Alison Brie, outstanding here, there would be little of note to recommend about Horse Girl, but she reinforces the character study elements of her script with impressive range and wholly believable second-guessing, the kind of performance that can only be achieved by study of real depression and paranoia, which she says was the case among her own family history. In a still-young year, this is one of the finer, richer performances yet put to screen, and it’s a shame that the film supporting it is so keen to squander a potentially powerful study of mental health into an encouragement to sink further and further into indulgence.
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