We live in a time where films and other pieces of pop culture are rife for exploitation and critique. Various forums, podcasts, and video series (such as Every Frame a Painting and Scriptnotes) on the internet along with dedicated fanbases break down scene after scene of artists’ and auteurs’ work, to the point where it’s almost become a whole new audience to tap into. It’s beyond the simple compulsion of rewatching, but rather a need to. Whilst some filmmakers tap into this effortlessly without sacrificing any elements of their art, many outwardly seek out such a response to varying degrees of success. Horse Girl, directed by Jeff Baena and written by him and star Alison Brie, often feels like an overly keen example of the latter. It tries desperately hard to illicit a gut response that at times it manages to fumble the genuine connection it achieves with an audience, and that’s a shame.
Sarah (Brie) is a quiet and reserved sales assistant at a local crafts store. She doesn’t have many friends outside of Joan from work (Molly Shannon); she lives in an apartment with her friend Nikki (Debby Ryan) and visits her childhood horse in her spare time alongside watching her favourite paranormal thrillers on TV. She’s a ‘horse girl’ in appearance and nature, and we all know women like her. She’s polite and undercuts herself at every turn – whether it’s in love or speaking up when something’s wrong, Sarah plants a meandering smile onto every situation. However, when her life begins to take a stranger turn and she begins to have strange, alien-abduction-like dreams alongside people she’s never met, she begins to suspect that something else may be tinkering with her small existence.
For the most part Horse Girl plays out as a flat drama with a direct link to melancholy. Alison Brie manages to give herself a role that highlights every facet of her acting chops. Sarah’s discomfort with opening up to people is groan-worthy on a first date with Darren (John Reynolds – who just so happens to have the same name as her crush on her favourite show) and her misplaced niceties are seen as grating to most of those around her. She swipes away the little nuggets that something may actually be wrong with a childish sense of dismissal too, making it all the more emotional when it fully encapsulates her. It helps that the usually-confident Brie is hindered by Sarah’s appearance. From her scruffy fringe to her faded wardrobe, Sarah’s identity blends as much into the background of those around her as possible.
Jeff Baena lets the strangeness seep in naturally too, with some brief flashes during the film’s first half that seem completely irregular and out-of-place once you question them, but fulfill the narrative’s potentially supernatural origin. His direction feels as if we’re standing at arms length from Sarah for the whole film, never allowed to capture the heights of emotion that Brie’s portraying like a bystander helpless to the events that are happening. There are scenes where he’s able to flesh out his surrealist muscles too, with vignettes and ‘dream’ sequences that lend the film a visual flair it needs in the quieter moments.
It’s an impossible film to identify. Brie actually dove into her family’s unknown history of mental health issues for the screenplay, and with that knowledge Sarah’s admittance of her mother’s suicide and grandmother’s schizophrenia pack an extra cathartic punch thanks to her sanity depleting before our eyes. It’s very difficult to play someone slowly going insane without adhering to the stereotypical pantomime-esque performance that’s usually accompanied by swift edits and jittery sound effects. Horse Girl bypasses these for the most part and remains respectable in that sense.
The film’s biggest problem however is its refusal to commit to where the narrative is going. Again, this will go down as a personal issue depending on how you see it relating to the themes of mental health but narratively, when the weirdness does creep in and Baena’s direction starts to feel alien, Horse Girl begins to come alive. Scenes are overlapped with each other and small minute details are filtered in and played back for those destined to figure out Sarah’s story. The paranoia of hereditary illness and forcing someone who’s not used to making a scene cry out for help no matter how strange it seems is an admirable goal on all levels. Yet, despite the strong central performance and progressively zany music from Josiah Steinbrick and Jeremy Zuckerman it can’t help but feel hollow at the worst of times.
For one, the progression of Sarah’s situation stops and starts instead of progressively getting worse. After her first sleepwalking incident we’re shown her haunting dream of a complete white void with strangers either side of her and introduced to the idea of those in her dream breaking into her life, but elements like this never reach a satisfying conclusion. At least, not on screen. Sarah’s inability to ask for help from a professional is due to a lack of a support group around her, yet when she makes a real connection with Darren her outbursts of apparent insanity are sudden and jarring not only to him but us too. It’s still a realistic and unglamorous depiction of true mental illness though, and it’s no surprise considering Mark and Jay Duplass produced the thing. There’s an incredible valid point to be made within Horse Girl, it’s just that it becomes muddled within the hands of a team who half want to tell a supernatural story with it.
This ambiguity can be enticing throughout, and the concept of time loops is handled in a way that harkens back to the work of Shane Carruth in its realistic and simplistic depiction. As Sarah’s world seeps back and forth into unknowns we’re forced to pick whether we believe this is actually happening to her or not. It mirrors what’s happening to the protagonist and just how she becomes disillusioned and confused… so do we. It’s a bait-and-switch in that Horse Girl starts life out as a charming indie comedy and ends as a reality-twisting parentheses to the story of a quiet girl with a troubled past. After all, we all know a horse girl some way or another, maybe it’s about time to start asking them about their lives?