Film Review – Horse Girl
There is a lot going on in Horse Girl (2020), and it very nearly manages to pull it off. It’s the story of an introverted character slowly losing their grip on reality, with the film itself following suit. It has a strong central performance, with the writing and direction keeping us glued in the further into the madhouse we go. And while I can’t say I was entirely convinced that the story earned its intentionally ambiguous ending, there is enough quality work here for those that want to be a bit more adventurous with their movie going choices.
Sarah (Alison Brie) is a meek and shy woman. She spends her days at home watching supernatural television shows to the dismay of her roommate Nikki (Debby Ryan). Her closest confidant is Joan (Molly Shannon) a coworker at the local arts and fabric store. Sarah is socially reserved, wanting to make a connection but extremely insecure about opening herself up to strangers. When her birthday rolls around, Sarah tries to invite members of her workout class but hesitates. The only way she meets potential love interest Darren (John Reynolds) is through Nikki’s boyfriend, and even that feels like a struggle to get through.
As we start to learn more about Sarah, the more we start to realize that there is something wrong bubbling under her timid appearance. There is a history of trauma, of family pain, and of bottled up guilt. She has a growing obsession with her grandmother, whom looked exactly like her. She sleepwalks, waking up in foreign places not knowing how she get there and losing all track of time. She constantly shows up at a stable where the horse riding instructors watch her with cautious eyes. Soon enough, Sarah starts building up a conspiracy in her mind, convinced that there’s a malevolent force closing in on her. Whether or not that conspiracy is proven true or false, I’ll leave to your own discovery.
Horse Girl was co-written by Brie and director Jeff Baena. Together, they pack a lot of material into a short amount of time. While the story seems straightforward, the context is incredibly dense and complex. We get introduced to a wide variety of different elements, from sci-fi, horror, and comedy. There is a mishmash of conflicting pieces of information, from Sarah’s dark family history, to mysterious characters popping up in Sarah’s life, alien body snatchers, grave-digging, and TV to name a few. When we step back and examine all these different puzzle pieces on their own, it shouldn’t work when put together. And it kind of doesn’t, in a way. The narrative hangs on by a slim thread, barely able to hold things from falling apart.
That thread is easily Alison Brie. Brie gives a very good performance here. In a movie where the main character’s mental state is called into question, it requires a confident and unflinching performer to take us through the emotional rollercoaster without losing us along the way. Brie does a nice job of balancing the two sides out. She gives Sarah enough vulnerability to make us want to follow her through her journey, but also enough edge to toe the line of sanity. The writing allows us to understand how Sarah goes off on these flights of fancy. It doesn’t hold us by the hand and spoon feed us easy answers, but instead lays down little clues throughout as a means to peek inside Sarah’s state of mind.
Baena’s direction and Ryan Brown’s editing constructs the flow of the scenes to resemble Sarah’s crumbling psyche. As Sarah’s real and dream lives start to merge, scenes start to have a more fluid, spontaneous style. We start to jump around in time and place, and moments that once took place in a dream state start to coalesce with Sarah’s everyday environments. It’s these sections that will either win over or disconnect viewers. While the loose structure toward the latter half was obviously intended to reflect Sarah’s mind, the randomness and unreliability of what is shown will test some audience member’s patience. I myself started to wonder where this was all going, and unfortunately the final moments are also the film’s weakest. But this approach was admittedly a bold choice, and I can appreciate how the production went in this direction and tried to see it all the way through – for better or for worse.
The main draw is – without a doubt – Alison Brie. As the co-writer, coproducer, and star, we see her really jump in headfirst into this role. She’s funny, lovable, unhinged, and dangerous all in equal measure. She gets to flex her acting chops, going from high to low and achieving it with flying colors. Horse Girl could have easily fallen into ridiculous pretension, but Brie stops that from happening. Her work keeps everything from flying off the rails, which is ironic given the character she plays.