James Clay // Film Critic
Finding the crux of Jeff Baena’s drama HORSE GIRL, starring Alison Brie, presents a challenge. This existential exercise is part quirky indie comedy and part psychological drama. It has its sweet lead character Sarah’s (Brie) psychological trauma spilling out all across the screen. It’s a slow reveal that spirals into a chilling mess of madness that has sympathy for its subject and fear for what the answers may hold. It’s a vicious cycle that is presented to take at face value, yet finds enough ambiguity to perhaps be frustrating for some viewers.
HORSE GIRL is near unclassifiable as it pivots from a morose story with unpleasant behavior and accessible humor for a wholly unique experience. Sarah is a quietly contemplative woman who works in a craft store wearing tapered light denim jeans, white Keds sneakers, and a monochromatic blouse with her hair pulled back. She “moonlights” as a riding instructor at a local ranch where nobody truly seems interested in anything she has to say. From the audiences’ perspective, Baena (JOSHY, THE LITTLE HOURS) is already setting Sarah up to be some sort of pariah who just can fit into societal norms.
Her only hobbies are a pretty harmless syndicated paranormal crime show called “Purgatory” (featuring a quality Matthew Gray Gubler cameo inside the show) and making lanyards for a horse named Willow as she quietly sits at home alone. Sarah finds respite in Joan (an endearing Molly Shannon) from work. Joan takes up a role as a surrogate mother as she listens to Sarah coping with the banality of daily life. Sarah thinks she wants more, yet is seemingly content to coast through without any personal sense of agency.
Sarah has a distant albeit helpful roommate (Debbie Ryan) who sets her up one lonely birthday with a paralegal named Darren (John Reynolds). Despite her initial resistance and with the help of some controlled substances, they cozy up to spark an endearing romance. Unfortunately cuddling up takes a backseat to Sarah’s sleepwalking, she’s dreaming about a vacuous white room, while not being able to track why she suddenly woke up with her pajamas on backward holding a payphone. Could it be family history, aliens, or a doppelganger? Brie and Baena never let you get too settled during these strange discoveries.
While tough to negotiate where the hallucinations begin and reality ends, Baena and Brie (they share screenwriting credits) challenge the audience to buy into the psyche of somebody who skirts on the edge of being deranged while breaking upwards into a higher plane of existence. It’s not until the last minute when all the cards are revealed. Still, Brie is a performer who has truly been challenging the physicality of her acting back since her days as the peppy Annie Eddison in the cult TV series COMMUNITY.
In one particularly unhinged scene, she’s dozing looking into the void of her shower drain and then mysteriously waltzes into her workplace completely naked unaware of her state of undress. She comes to and collapses out of fear and shame. In another moment on a date, she hysterically rants conspiracy theories on her mother’s grave. Brie takes on a transformation with sunken-in eyes, pale face, bruises, and weight loss. She embodies this troubled individual with a manic obsessive energy that’s completely unhinged, and everything she’s yelling about appears to be entirely plausible.
When the final act starts to rope in its themes and reveal what’s truly going on the narrative slides off the rails a bit, but some of that is by design as we’re trapped inside Sarah’s headspace even when things aren’t as pleasant as cutting fabric, or watching pulpy television. Baena and Brie make for fascinating collaborators and his filmography is a testament to the boundaries he pushes by making angsty movies about knowing if you are still growing, or stuck in this state of mind forever.
HORSE GIRL releases Friday on Netflix.