'Horse Girl': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
A fine-tuned performance sells an unusual look at mental illness.
2/7/2020

Jeff Baena's fourth film stars Alison Brie as a homebody whose life has become a mystery.

In his three previous trips to the fest as director, Jeff Baena has brought Sundancers offerings ranging from a heartfelt zombie love story (Life After Beth) to a winking take (The Little Hours) on bawdy 14th-century tales of nuns and priests. So it's little surprise that Horse Girl, starring and co-written by Alison Brie, is hard to categorize. What looks initially like a character study of a sweet but lonely young woman soon opens up into other possibilities, with most signs pointing toward mental illness. A tone of gentle, amused observation turns concerned, then frightening; and few viewers will escape a dread that something terrible is going to happen to our hero, a woman Brie invests with endless, naive goodwill. Whatever exactly is going on (a misguided few will debate the literal meaning of closing scenes), the film is more serious than it appears; though odd and not for everyone, it's an ideal vehicle for Brie, using qualities she's displayed in excellent small-screen roles as an entry point to disturbing inner states.

Brie plays Sarah, who works in a hobby store and can happily spend all day finding just the right fabric for a customer's sewing project or comparing the clean-ability of different paints. Co-worker Joan (Molly Shannon) shares these interests, but lovingly urges her young friend to live a life outside work: "You deserve to have fun," she says, alluding to losses we don't understand yet.

Sarah's roommate Nikky (Debby Ryan), perhaps less sympathetic than she is annoyed Sarah's always at home, gets her boyfriend to bring his roommate Darren (John Reynolds) over one evening. The two loners hit it off; their fumbling inability to kiss each other at the night's end suggests we're at the start of a familiar kind of indie romance. Not by a long shot.

Sarah has two non-work pastimes: She endlessly rewatches episodes of a supernatural detective show called Purgatory; and she hangs out at a local stable, giving unwanted advice to the girl who takes riding lessons on a horse Sarah used to own. Why can't Sarah ride the horse she loves so deeply? Is it connected to her sleepwalking, which has gotten so bad she's now liable to drive her car across town and leave it there without knowing?

Maybe both are related to Sarah's vivid nighttime visions, in which she's held alongside two strangers in a mysterious white room. When she sees one of the strangers (John Ortiz's Ron) on the sidewalk one day, she grows obsessed with trying to find out how they're connected. All the while, we worry that this obsession might lead to the kind of breakdowns her mother and grandmother suffered.

While it's never exactly coy, the film spends much of its time allowing us to wonder if, indeed, something other than delusion is happening here. Sarah has some strategies for verifying her sanity; if they're not currently conclusive, maybe she just hasn't found the right piece of information yet? But when she starts sharing what she believes on her first date with Darren, things start turning dark fairly quickly.

Brie's performance never grows lurid, however desperate Sarah becomes to convince others that great forces are conspiring against her. Instead, the movie itself veers toward extremes, in extended sequences where fantasy and reality bleed into each other. Questions about who in Sarah's world might be imaginary are less important than in some depictions of dramatic mental breakdowns, since Brie and Baena are less interested in constructing narrative fakeouts than in following Sarah to wherever this episode leads her. Unfortunately, the earnestness and lack of experience that lead us to sympathize with Sarah may also make her unable to abandon the scary ideas in her head.

Production company: Duplass Brothers
Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Alison Brie, Debby Ryan, John Reynolds, Molly Shannon, John Ortiz, Paul Reiser, Jay Duplass
Director: Jeff Baena
Screenwriters: Jeff Baena, Alison Brie
Producers: Mel Eslyn, Alana Carithers, Jeff Baena, Alison Brie
Executive producers:‚Äč Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass
Director of photography: Sean McElwee
Production designers: Ashley Fenton, Megan Fenton
Costume designer: Beth Morgan
Editor: Ryan Brown
Composers: Josiah Steinbrick, Jeremy Zuckerman
Casting directors: Courtney Bright, Nicole Daniels
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)

104 minutes