A film review by Craig J. Koban February 24, 2020


2020, R, 104 mins.


Alison Brie as Sarah  /  John Reynolds as Darren  /  Debby Ryan as Nikki  /  Molly Shannon as Joan  /  John Ortiz as Ron

Directed by Jeff Baena  /  Written by Baena and Alison Brie


The Netflix produced film HORSE GIRL begins with relative modesty and simplicity, but then slowly and somewhat compellingly segues into one of the single strangest dramas that I've seen in quite some time.  

On a basic premise level, it couldn't be anymore economical: A chronically introverted and unendingly shy craft store sales associate starts to deal with her mental health slowly, but surely, unraveling.  As a character study and chronicle of psychological illness, HORSE GIRL is on reasonably strong ground.  But then it goes down...well...some truly bizarre narrative and thematic roads, some of which involves past childhood trauma, time travel, reincarnation, cloning, and, yes, horses.  It's an ambitiously absurd method to evoke how depressed and fragile minds can fully and detrimentally break from reality, but not all of it works as completely or confidentially as it should.    

More crucially, HORSE GIRL probably functions better as a bravura performance highlight reel for the very underrated Alison Brie, who stars here on top of serving as co-writer (with director Jeff Baena).  HORSE GIRL is mostly told through the eyes of Brie's Sarah, who is introduced very early on in the film as a fairly ordinary, yet deeply insecure young woman that spends most of her ample free time tending to the horse that she rode as a girl and watching her favorite TV show, PURGATORY.  Beyond that, Sarah has no life: no husband, no boyfriend, no kids, and very few friends.  Arguably, her closest confidant is her craft store boss in Joan (a quite good Molly Shannon), who's there for Sarah when she emotionally needs it and dispenses as much plain spoken advice to her as she can muster.  Sarah is not particularly close to her roommate, Nikki (Debbie Ryan), who bemoans Sarah's totally lack of engagement on the dating front.  Unfortunately, Sarah is so unrelentingly mousy and ill at ease under her own skin that it's a miracle that she can muster up the courage just to walk up and talk to a man. 

Getting desperate, Nikki goes on the offensive and tries to hook Sarah up with the BFF of her boyfriend in Darren (John Reynolds), who seems like a legitimately honest, open minded, and easy going fella that genuinely likes Sarah - despite her personality shortcomings - and wants to pursue a relationship with her.  The pair start dating and things seem to be on the up and up for both of these lost souls, but Darren starts to notice some real unsettling things about Sarah that even the nice-guy-next-door in him has problems accepting.  Her initial innocent flirtations with him starts to crumble away and gives way to her unveiling some dark truths about her.  Sarah has started sleepwalking, awakening in odd areas and forgetting things.  Then she starts having hallucinations.  Then she drops a bombshell on poor Darren that she believes that her chronic sleepwalking issues and damning visions that she's suffering through are the result of an alien abduction.  Plus, she also really, really believes that her reality is not true and that she may or may not be the product of cloning of a past dead relative.  Darren, rather predictably, recoils in stunned horror. 



HORSE GIRL is a real cinematic curveball being thrown at audiences.  Early on, it feels like one of those obligatory, feel-good romcoms with an idiosyncratic lead character that will overcome her own timidity and find a reservoir of self-actualization during the course of the story.  The opening stages most certainly carry on a vibe of normalcy that later completely unravels as viewers grow to learn just how deeply troubled and sick this once adorably odd woman has become.  Kind of like many of the characters around Sarah, the viewer initially accepts the rather plain reality established in the introductory sections of the film, but as Sarah's mental state starts to totally collapse from scene to scene we kind of watch helplessly and wonder what's pathetically next for this damaged being.   It's the bold 180 degree turns that HORSE GIRL takes that elevates itself above the standard conventions of genre dramedies, and as layers become unpeeled in Sarah's life and history - during which time we learn of her family's own twisted history with mental illness - we can't help but feel pity for her, especially when it seems that she could be beyond help. 

HORSE GIRL is intrinsically fascinating in exploring this descent of a woman breaking away from her everyday reality and into one that certainly seems completely make believe.  Furthermore, the film tiptoes - sometimes hypnotically, other times confusingly - about what is the actually reality that Sarah finds herself occupying.  Is she just a well meaning, but mentally disturbed woman that's gone so deep into her own nearly incurable psychosis that she just believes that she was abducted by aliens and cloned from a past family member?  Or, is there some small morsel of truth to back up her otherwise nonsensical claims?  There are some noteworthy clues here and there in the story that potentially back up her interpretation of events (without the filmmakers or script truly tipping off viewers one way or another), but it becomes clear the longer the film progresses that the truth about what is actually happening to Sarah is almost secondary.  What's of chief importance on display here is that HORSE GIRL is an unusually enthralling portal into psychotic depression and evokes one bona fide truth about the depressed: sometimes, it's impossible to admit that you're suffering from it and require help. 

Brie is a force of performance nature in a very tricky role that requires her to be peculiarly endearing while simultaneously showing just how irreparably damaged her character has become.  She never overplays Sarah to histrionic and annoyingly distracting levels.  In most respects, she's a warm hearted and caring person that's (a) socially inept and (b) having great sustained difficulty accepting reality, which leads to verbally hostile outbursts that all but threatens all of her interpersonal ties that she has managed to foster.  There's something to admire in Brie's total and brave commitment to this role (which simply goes places that few other actresses would feel comfortable partaking in), and she manages to miraculously make us like Sarah and all of her weird quirkiness while later making us horrified by just how far gone she becomes later in the story. 

HORSE GIRL navigates some very troubling story and thematic terrain, and perhaps it's guilty of not knowing how to merge these divergent lanes together to complete and fully cohesive roadmap.  It's certainly a difficult prospect to begin a film with the warm and inviting glow of an indie romcom darling and then later pull the rug out from underneath viewers and delve into the dreariest depths of mental illness that, in turn, gives way to some sci-fi and conspiracy theory trappings.  Many that have seen the film have tried to dissect its much talked about ending, which I obviously will not spoil, other than to say that to say that Baena and Brie are trying to have their cake and eat it too in terms of trying to appease viewers that feel that Sarah is beyond nuts and those that feel that there is truth to her cockamamie claims.  Some have found HORSE GIRL'S final moments richly audacious and ambiguous, whereas I found them more problematic and confounding than anything else.   

Maybe if the overall film had more going for it than I would forgive such beguiling ending ambiguities, but if you look past Brie's career high performance and the unique approaches in tackling some serious issues, then HORSE GIRL is conceptually risky, yet undeveloped on an overall execution front.  This movie has a definitive vision of what it wants to be about and say in terms of the paralyzing impact that depression and mental illness has on people, but the resulting enterprise seems to be rushing to a confusing finishing line that doesn't build to satisfying closure.  Still, I'm giving HORSE GIRL three stars with reservations, mostly because it deserves to be seen for Brie's superlative and gutsy performance and for subverting my genre expectations of the film going in, but on another plane of existence this film would have felt more than the sum of a few of its great parts.  

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