While the topic of mental health has become increasingly talked about over the past few years (and rightly so), conversations tend to centre around the more palatable aspects of conditions. Anxiety and depression, though taken seriously, are still the only conditions people are genuinely comfortable talking about on a wide scale, and only if less attractive symptoms like bad hygiene or paranoia remain unacknowledged. Therefore, I have a strong level of respect for Horse Girl‘s depiction of a young woman suffering from psychotic delusions in a way that doesn’t paint her as a villain – if this sensitive portrait had remained the goal of the film to its endpoint, I likely would have gotten more out of it.
For its first third, Horse Girl feels more like a dark comedy akin to Ingrid Goes West than the surreal drama it later becomes. We follow Sarah, a young woman with an unlucky past, as she goes about her rather mediocre life: working at a fabric store, visiting the horse she used to own, and watching copious amounts of a Supernatural-esque fantasy series. You learn increasingly more about the trauma she has experienced, putting this life in a new perspective as you hope she’ll find a way out of her own head and into a happier situation. Then the film shifts in a way that I don’t want to spoil, and you begin to miss the sensitivity and realism that her life was treated with mere minutes earlier.
Even if the actual narrative skews towards the spectacular at the expense of poignancy later on, Alison Brie’s performance consistently keeps Horse Girl grounded. She has to tread a fine line as Sarah between sweet awkwardness and manic intensity and does so with ease, not falling into the trap of turning her into a quirky dreamgirl from 2010 or a caricature of an ‘insane’ person. Therefore, in her less sympathetic, harder to relate to moments, you remain by her side. Unfortunately, except for the ever wonderful Molly Shannon as her kindly boss Joan, the supporting cast remain fairly one dimensional. Her flatmate Nikki, played questionably by Debby Ryan, flip flops in her attitude towards Sarah in a way that confuses how we understand their relationship, and Nikki’s boyfriend Brian is almost comically unsympathetic.
Though it may be present partially for cutesy indie marketability, director Jeff Baena’s chosen aesthetic for Horse Girl fits the subjectivity of its central character perfectly. The cold tones of her quiet, sparse workplace reflect her isolation, and the washed-out, generic quality of her apartment reveals that no physical place truly exists to be a safe place for her – she’s always on guard against the world. In this sense, I wish the dream sequences had been a little messier; although using a similar look blurs the lines further between reality and delusion, a grungier appearance might have more accurately reflected her mental state as we know it.
I’m glad that Netflix continues to finance and distribute experimental projects like these, especially as their model means that cinema like this will hopefully become more and more accessible. But when you have work like The Irishman, Dolemite Is My Name, Marriage Story, it’s hard to recommend this over other Netflix movies unless you have a lot of time to spare. You might be on board at first, and I admire much about Horse Girl, but by the end, it feels more like wasted potential than a fully developed movie.