Initially playing out as something of a gender-bent “Napoleon Dynamite,” the first 20 minutes of Jeff Baena’s “Horse Girl” lean into a quirky character study before tipping into unexpectedly darker spaces. Star Alison Brie, who also co-wrote the film alongside her “Little Hours” director, turns in her best big screen performance yet, imbuing her Sarah with a compelling sweetness, and selling both her awkwardness and kindness in equal measure, keeping the film afloat when it makes more baffling leaps. And this is a film that makes baffling leaps, jumping from character comedy into a fantastical exploration of mental illness that’s never able to shake its silly start, adding a queasy layer of wackiness to far more serious material.
Sarah’s obsessions are minor and sweet: she loves crafting, her horse Willow, her weekly Zumba class, and a schlocky supernatural crime show starring Robin Tunney and Matthew Gray Gubler in clever cameos. Her social life is nonexistent (despite some gentle pushes from her caring roommate, a lovely Debby Ryan), but she loves her job at a local fabric store and her co-workers (especially Molly Shannon, whose Joan acts as a mother surrogate). That Sarah is something of an object of pity even before she begins experiencing mental and emotional instability sets her at a remove from the jump, as if we’re already meant to feel bad for her before we really need to feel bad for her.
Brie, however, holds fast to a character that is clearly close to her heart, opting for empathy even when the film is intent on building in dim diversions (yes, it’s funny that her roommate’s idiot boyfriend thinks he’s a burgeoning rapper, but what does that have to do with anything?). There’s lingering trauma in Sarah’s life, some delivered bluntly (she visits her mom’s grave, talks about her death with her stepdad, and then the film still insists on showing a flashback to it) and some more gracefully (her affection for a disabled friend, a restrained Meredith Hagner, is among the film’s loveliest inclusions). But the introduction of a potential love interest in the adorable Darren (John Reynolds, operating like a young Jason Segel) seems to signal positive changes in her quiet life. Not so fast.
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Odd occurrences pile up: nosebleeds, terrifying nightmares, sleepwalking, and a tendency for Sarah to become distracted by water and electricity. Their sudden morph into something far more sinister happens quickly, pushed along by a dinner with Darren that redefines the concept of a bad date. Yet Sarah’s descent into — what? madness? instability? genetics? fantasy? something even more inexplicable? — occurs rapidly, just as the script seems to be steadily building towards something less outlandish. A jittery, often grating score from Josiah Stenbrick and Jeremy Zuckerman teeters between the nightmarish and the cheesy, setting the aural scene for both a horror film and a quirky comedy. It never settles into either.
Brie has said that the film is based on her own experiences with mental health, and that the inclusion of stories about Sarah’s grandmother and mother are purposely built in to better reflect her own life. The film’s treatment of Sarah’s burgeoning illness is never disrespectful, but it’s used as a catch-all excuse for all her off-kilter behavior, all of her quirks and fears, her sudden bent towards tinfoil hat-level conspiracy theories, and is eventually passed off as another idiosyncratic facet of her strange little life.
There are indications that “Horse Girl” and its creators have something to say about the sorry state of mental health care in this country — what happened to Sarah’s grandmother is blamed on Reagan-era policies, and Sarah’s own time in a facility is woefully insufficient — but it’s never explored beyond basics. Instead, Baena unspools a long-form nightmare fantasy sequence that pushes Sarah through her own addled brain in service to bizarre imagery over emotional substance.
While Baena and Brie’s script wraps up a handful of smaller subplots into airless bundles (again, the non-mystery of Sarah’s mother’s death, the revelation of what happened to Hagner’s character), more pressing threads are never fully explained (knowing that it’s ostensibly about actual mental health struggles makes its sudden ending feel, at best, like the easy, wacky way out). Brie’s delicate performance nearly rescues both Sarah and “Horse Girl” from falling into the awkward traps it sets for itself, hedging on the tough stuff in favor of weirdness for its own sake, faux-arty style over anything that could offer the slightest interest in healing, for either its star or her story.
“Horse Girl” premiered in the Premieres section of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Netflix will release it on February 7.