Sarah is a quirky, socially awkward young woman living in a bright, pastel world. This world is very small in scope. She connects mostly with her (much older or much younger) co-workers at a craft store, her former horse Willow (let’s just say there was an accident and liability involved), and her roommate Nikki, who kindly (if condescendingly) tries to set Sarah up with real people, instead of the television show characters that Sarah fantasizes over. Upon meeting a man who shares a name with one of these, it’s all an excited Sarah can talk about. “Maybe don’t…” says Nikki, trying to shift the conversation. Sarah laughs when nothing is funny and smiles when she isn’t happy. Lacking the courage to initiate real contact with others, she’s content to spend her birthday alone… or at least she says she is. “I guess those plans fell through…” she plaintively responds to questions from her roommate, knowing full well there were no plans. There never are.
In writing that paragraph, I realize the darkness of the tone and setting of Horse Girl, a Netflix original starring and co-written by the lovely Alison Brie and directed by Jeff Baena. I remark on this, because the first third, possibly even half of the film, is directed, shot and acted as if it were ready to bloom into a run-of-the-mill early 2000’s quirky comedy, where cutely broken people find each other and piece each other together. Knowing how it all reaches a climax, I realize that I was lulled into a false sense of security, never being able to have predicted where the film ultimately leads.
Sarah (Brie) you see, needs everything just so. The paint at the craft store not too thick, but not too thin. Willow should be brushed a certain way. Her car must be parked in the right spot, with the club lock. A 1990 Volvo could be tempting for thieves, you see. Sometimes things go wrong… she thought she set the alarm. Where did that lost time go? Why was her empty car in the middle of the road, keys still in the ignition? When her roommate’s boyfriend spends the night, why does he find her near comatose in the kitchen? “It’s sleepwalking; my mom always said I have an active imagination…”. She is often found at her mother’s side… graveside, that is. The headstone is as meticulously maintained as everything else in her life. By tightly keeping everything under control, perhaps Sarah is stemming off or banishing her family’s history of mental illness… her mother died by her own hand. Her grandmother on the streets, after being institutionalized. People always told Sarah she looks just like her grandmother… a mirror image… almost a clone.
While watching Horse Girl, the tone feels almost cliché… until the pieces start coming together. Or perhaps until they start falling apart. As Sarah notices more gaps in her memory, her behavior grows more erratic. What began as quirky and cute feels harried and stressed. What seems to be a sweet date between awkward people sharing a love of sci-fi and aliens grows more barbed as Sarah’s interest seems a little too keen… “you’re taking this really seriously…” her prospective partner says. The film starts to take it more seriously too. We see inside Sarah’s dreams. Where does she know the people in them from? She should follow them. Why is everyone overreacting? I needed to use an alias. I don’t know who’s listening, who’s watching… we see her thoughts without needing an inner monologue. As Sarah’s certainty and sanity starts to crumble, so does the narrative cohesion of the film. The line between dream and reality blurs. Are we seeing into Sarah’s subconscious or is she truly acting out the behavior we witness? Who knows what? The audience? The filmmaker? What is there left to believe?
The way the film portrays the erosion of Sarah’s world is done most effectively, creating a tense, harried, claustrophobic and paranoid atmosphere totally at odds with the film’s beginning. As its momentum lurched nauseatingly forward, I found myself becoming more enraptured with the proceedings, even as I became less and less certain of what was actually transpiring. All by design, I would have to think, and deftly done at that. Music, editing and camera all work in the service of this vision. In some ways, the closest recent corollary to this film that comes to mind is Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane of 2018. That film seemed to have more coherent aesthetic intentions and purpose however. As atmospherically effective as Horse Girl is, I was left fully unsatisfied at its conclusion. Was this meant as a portrait of a woman coming undone? A genre exercise, an experiment in unease? A comment on familial ties, social decay and isolation? Horse Girl is all of, and therefore none of, those things. In 2020 I feel that a film about mental illness needs to provide more for the audience than a mere sensory experience. Where is this all going and why? For dramatic and narrative purposes these questions can’t, and shouldn’t always be answered, but without some ultimate hints the whole enterprise can feel almost exploitative. Horse Girl, despite its aesthetic interest lacks that deeper meaning, and, bereft of meaning, ultimately feels bereft of purpose. But as this film proves, that doesn’t always matter in the moment.