THE STORY – A socially awkward woman with a fondness for horses finds her increasingly lucid dreams slowly invading her waking life.
THE CAST – Alison Brie, Molly Shannon, Debby Ryan & John Reynolds
THE TEAM – Jeff Baena (Director/Writer) & Alison Brie (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 104 Minutes
By Bianca Garner
Right off the bat, this is a difficult review to write. Jeff Baena’s latest film, “Horse Girl,” is damn near impossible to describe without revealing too much. It’s one of those films where the less you know going into it, the better. After premiering at this year’s Sundance, “Horse Girl” has now been released on Netflix, which seems a perfect fit for this quirky, off-beat, psychological thriller. Well, actually, it’s not exactly a thriller, nor is it a straightforward indie comedy – it’s something else completely.
This is a film that blends genres and various tropes in order to create a cinematic patchwork quilt; however, it begins to unravel towards the end. Baena isn’t a stranger to blending genres together and deconstructing their elements – his zombie rom-com “Life After Beth” ripped apart the teen romantic comedy film – and with “Horse Girl,” Baena is attempting to mature as a filmmaker and writer (he co-wrote the script with leading actress Alison Brie), but he may have bitten off more than he can chew.
We follow Sarah (Brie), a shy and socially awkward young woman who works in a craft store, and aside from her fellow employee Joan (Molly Shannon) and her roommate Nikki (Debby Ryan), Sarah rarely socializes with others. She spends her nights watching a cheesy supernatural crime show, “Purgatory,” and making crafts. Her only real joy in life is visiting a horse that she can no longer ride, although romance looms with the entrance of Darren (John Reynolds) who seems to be a like-minded individual.
While her days may seem uneventful, the same can’t be said for her nights. Sarah is plagued by a series of vivid dreams where she lies in a white room in the middle of two other people who appear to be unconscious. During these dreams, Sarah sleepwalks, freaking out her roommate’s boyfriend. The dreams intensify and soon she loses track of time, waking up in bizarre places. As her mental state deteriorates, coupled with strange scratch marks on the walls and bruises on her body, Sarah comes to the conclusion that she’s being abducted by aliens. The line between what is reality and what is fantasy becomes blurred and Sarah’s journey goes to places that we weren’t expecting. At times “Horse Girl” gets very dark, but it lacks a certain bite.
There’s much to admire with “Horse Girl,” but it feels slightly too jam-packed with too many ideas that aren’t fully developed or explored. Baena, along with help from editor Ryan Brown and cinematographer Sean McElwee, plays around with some neat bits of editing and camera angles, which helps to create this surreal, otherworldly atmosphere. The score by composers Josiah Steinbrick and Jeremy Zuckerman embraces the film’s psychological and science fiction elements, and when this score is coupled with the film’s more striking visual moments, “Horse Girl” becomes a stronger film.
Much of the film’s success is down to Alison Brie’s stunning and very hauntingly believable performance. Brie captures this lonely, isolated woman who seems to be struggling to find meaning in this world. And, while another actress may have played up the character’s quirkiness for easy laughs, Brie has an air of composure to her role, despite playing a character who is undergoing a mental breakdown and losing her grasp on reality. This is a role that showcases Brie’s talent, and one can only hope that it leads to more doors opening for her. We can see her commitment to this role, and in interviews, Brie has discussed how this was a very personal role for her due to her family’s own history with mental illness. What makes “Horse Girl” such an emotionally impactful film is that it feels very universal, as well as personal. Never do we feel that Brie and Baena are mocking or exploiting mental illness.
The supporting actors are all perfectly cast in their roles. Molly Shannon’s character is very motherly towards Sarah, but at times she comes across far more sinister. Perhaps this is Baena playing with our expectations? John Reynolds plays the love interest that seems too good to be true, but luckily the film never crosses that line. Reynolds and Brie have some good key scenes together, including a quirky playful date scene which quickly becomes tragic. Debby Ryan’s character feels unnecessary and out of place in this film, almost as if she’s stepped out of an early 2000s high school comedy à la “Mean Girls.”
Unfortunately, the main issue with the film is its pacing. It takes a long time to get going, and when its tone and subject matter become more serious, it quickly loses its footing and results in alienating its audience. At times, the film is very hard to follow and it becomes rushed towards the end so the emotional impact feels lost in translation. “Horse Girl” is undoubtedly a film that will more than likely be better with repeat viewings in order to make sense of the film’s confusing narrative. One can only hope that Baena and Brie will team up again because they certainly work very well together.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – A career-best performance from Alison Brie and a complex, thoughtful approach to mental illness.
THE BAD – Often muddled and poorly paced, it loses its way towards the end.
THE OSCARS – None