Synopsis – A socially awkward woman with a fondness for arts and crafts, horses, and supernatural crime shows finds her increasingly lucid dreams trickling into her waking life.
My Take – Right from her days on Community, the American comedy series that ran from 2009 to 2015, I have been in awe of Alison Brie‘s exceptional talent and magnetic onscreen presence (along with hugely crushing on her), despite starring alongside an already well proven cast. A talent which she rightfully got to elaborate in Netflix‘s wresting comedy drama, GLOW.
While she has mainly featured in supporting roles and ensembles of the indie comedy kind, this Sundance film sees Alison Brie, co-produce and co-write a film that should manage to even raise the eyebrows of her biggest skeptics. What starts off as a quirky indie comedy about a very charming and harmless loner of Sundance variety, unexpectedly goes off the rails, without preparing you even the slightest, and takes a dark and ambitious deep dive into the mind of a woman suffering from a psychotic breakdown, by taking us into her own little world, blending genres with surprisingly strong results.
Even if you don’t quite comprehend what is happening, it’s always strangely and certifiably compelling. It doesn’t spoon-feed you anything; you have to work to find its answers. Even then, nothing it provides is concrete, to the point that its seemingly more overt ending could still a little more to be desired.
Directed and co-written by Jeff Baena (The Little Hours) and backed by the Duplass Brothers, this oddly named piece spawned out of Brie’s desire to explore her family’s mental health history and the uncertainty of her own future, as both her mother and grandmother suffered from paranoid schizophrenia.
And how far would one go with it will depend on one’s toleration for this kind of melting-pot of different genres. But if you’re a fan of surreal films that grapple with the nature of reality and how we experience. While it cannot be considered a masterwork, it’s definitely worth your time.
The story follows Sarah (Alison Brie), a soft-spoken and overly polite sales girl who works at a crafts store. However, outside of her work, she has no real support system. Sure, she goes to Zumba regularly and is friendly with her coworker Joan (Molly Shannon) and her roommate Nikki (Debby Ryan) treats her kindly, but none of these people are really her friends, as Sarah spends rest of her time visiting stables to see her old horse, or watching her favorite show, Purgatory (starring Robin Tunney and Matthew Gray Gubler).
Her life finally takes an interesting turn when Nikki invites her boyfriend, Brian (Jake Picking) and his new roommate Darren (John Reynolds) to celebrate Sarah’s birthday, with hopes of setting them up. Which certainly works as both Sarah and Darren hit off immediately with an official first date set up the very next day.
However, things for Sarah soon begin to spiral down. With weird dreams plaguing her where she finds herself in a bright white room along with two strangers (John Ortiz and Angela Trimbur), she also keeps losing time, and wakes up in places with no memory of how she got there. With history of mental illness running in Sarah’s family, it would be very easy to assume she has inherited that instability. But Sarah doesn’t think so, as she begins to suspect there’s something grander at work here, and contemplates scenarios such as alien abductions and being her grandma’s clone.
You have to agree that this kind of switch-up is rare, however I am definitely thankful for it. Once the shift in tones takes place the story-line only gets more confusing and culminates in a sequence that is both funny and terrifying. Much like the whole of the film itself, it starts out one way and ends in another. Here, director Jeff Baena goes about introducing all of the elements organically. The early portion of the film is quite funny, and the scenes with Sarah and her potential new boyfriend are sweet. And even as Sarah begins to grow confused and paranoid, he keeps up the pretext of humor.
But before we know it, the tone has shifted considerably, and the film has become much darker, and much more disturbing. The way the film is written, directed and portrayed will elicit both anxiety and empathy from the viewer as Sarah’s paranoia, hallucinations and dreams all begin to merge with reality until it is hard to discern what is actually true.
We, in a way, see what it’s like to be inside her head and experiences the film in the same way she does. Unlike other films on mental illness, the focus remains on just observing and empathetically inhibiting her mindset without judgment or explanation.
The film gives as an empathetic, compassionate, and uncommonly thoughtful look into the fear that you’re a ticking time bomb, that the illness you saw your loved ones succumb to is going to take you, too, and that nobody will really understand you.
One of the smartest choices here the film takes is to not spell everything out. For example, we never really learn why the horse she continues to visit is no longer her horse. While we catch glimpses of a moment in a flashback where we see a young acquaintance of Sarah’s thrown from a horse and injured, and anytime Sarah comes around the stables, the owner (Toby Huss) acts nervously and is clearly uncomfortable at her presence. But till the end it remains an uncommented-upon detail that goes a long way towards establishing who Sarah is, and how the people in her life perceive her.
But when the script starts trying to provide some answers to some of its many mysteries, it comes up short. The film felt like a good place for a discussion about mental illness, but then the film backtracks and doesn’t want to leave Sarah insane. Both possibilities aren’t out of the question.
The story is told from Sarah so in her mind she could have been proven right at the end, while in reality, she’s in a mental institution unable to escape the trap of her mind’s creation. It felt unsure by creating an ambiguity at the end by really questioning if Sarah is actually right about the abductions and time travel. It seemed like an easy way out for a tough situation.
The film is obviously a very meaningful film to Alison Brie, as she gives it her all as Sarah and played both the small and big moments perfectly. Brie carries the film into a completely different territory, both as an actress and a co-writer. She dug much deeper than she would in an average, forgettable coming-of-age tale, and her performance makes the film definitely worth watching.
The supporting cast which consists of Molly Shannon, Paul Reiser, Debby Ryan, John Reynolds, Robin Tunney, Matthew Gray Gubler, Jake Picking, John Ortiz, Angela Trimbur, Toby Huss and Jay Duplass also play their parts well. On the whole, ‘Horse Girl’ is an insightful character-based film which despite its shortcomings manages to be a very hypnotic experience.
Directed – Jeff Baena
Rated – R
Run Time – 103 minutes