Director: Jeff Baena
Stars: Alison Brie, John Ortiz, Toby Huss
Alison Brie is Sarah, a wallflower-type in her 30’s who works in a crafts store. In her spare time she enjoys horses (hence the name here) and her favourite TV show is a supernatural series called Purgatory. She also has a disconcerting habit of waking up in places she can’t remember journeying to. Her increasingly manic behaviour only frustrates her ‘normal’ roommate Nikki (Debby Ryan), especially when it results in mysterious scratches on their apartment wall.
Brie not only stars here but also co-wrote Horse Girl with director Jeff Baena, who is most fondly known for his comedic collaborations with Aubrey Plaza (Life After Beth, The Little Hours). Horse Girl is a tentative step into more serious territory; a light dramedy-cum-character study of a peculiar woman whose wavering mental health sets a deteriorating trajectory for this awkward little Netflix film.
Brie has proven to be a talented character actress across several celebrated television shows (Mad Men, Community, GLOW), so her interest and investment in burrowing into a particular character ‘type’ is hardly a surprise, but Horse Girl walks an uncomfortable line between empathising with Sarah’s naivety / arrested development and playing it for laughs. Tellingly, she never seems so comfortable as when she is seen conversing with a teenage girl whom she helps to ride at the local stables.
When Sarah starts dreaming of a man (John Ortiz) who she then sees in real life, she starts insistently connecting the dots of her own paranoiac conspiracy theories and the plot lines of her favourite TV show. New romantic interest Darren (John Reynolds) initially finds her openness and creativity charming, but he quickly grows alarmed by her intensity.
The mercurial music by Josiah Steinbrick and Jeremy Zuckerman evokes a kind of purity or utopian calm at times, suggesting that Sarah’s detachment from reality brings with it a tranquil kind of peace or bliss. At other times, their music percolates like the busywork heard in Jon Brion’s score for Punch-Drunk Love. The disconnect between these two styles is a fitting accompaniment to a movie that can’t quite seem to decide if we’re supposed to find its protagonist silly or scary.
Brie clearly has some passion for the material and goes to some brave lengths for her art. She puts in the work here. One sequence evokes a cliché nightmare scenario with bare vulnerability, while Brie truly shines when Sarah is encouraged to open up to a therapist (a very good little bit for Jeff Duplass, too). But there’s an unshakable sense that, as events escalate, Horse Girl increasingly starts mishandling its subject matter.
The intentionally dreamlike third act sees Sarah provoked into action, part of which involves fashioning a costume for herself (and her horse). This act draws comparison to James Gunn’s Super and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive – two films which successfully offered alternate takes on the superhero origin story narrative. Sarah’s outfit gives her determination. Gunn’s film in particular made for a provocative ride as he noted the inherently unhinged psychology of manifesting an alter-ego to exonerate acts of violence and vigilantism. Sarah’s costume – intentionally or not – brings to mind traditions of Middle Eastern attire for women, uncomfortably equating the burka with mental illness. But perhaps, like Sarah, I’m making a bit of a reach here.
Baena’s ambitions to broaden the range of what he’s shown interest in as a director are admirable, but Horse Girl is a little too trifling to be considered successful. Perhaps what comes next will cohere more convincingly. I’m a sucker for film that intermingles the waking and dreaming states. But the attempt to seriously examine this person and her problems seems to lose all weight by the finale, making Horse Girl something of an empty experience (great choice of end credits song though*).
Still, I would watch the shit out of Purgatory.
*No you went to see Angel Olsen in concert last night