Horse Girl (United States, 2020)February 08, 2020
While watching Horse Girl, which is either a whacked-out
science fiction film or an exploration of mental illness (my money is on the
latter), two other titles came to mind: Kristin Wiig’s Welcome to Me and
Darren Aaronofsky’s mindfuck, mother!
And, as with those movies, my reaction was somewhere in the middle – an appreciation
of the craft and some of the risks taken by the director but a recognition that,
taken as a whole, the approach doesn’t work and ultimately comes across as more
off-putting than successful.
The story is filtered through the perspective of wallflower
Sarah (Alison Brie), who isn’t the most reliable of narrators. In the early going,
we don’t fully recognize how unreliable she is but, as the movie develops, it
becomes evident that her version of events may not be reflective of the reality
of the situation. Nevertheless, director Jeff Baena (working from a script he
co-wrote with Brie) treads a tightwire the never reveals where “truth” lies.
Some will almost certainly be frustrated by this artistic conceit – it doesn’t
make for a tidy or satisfying experience. Like mother!, it’s more of an
experimental production than something intended for mainstream audiences. It debuted
at Sundance (before making its way to Netflix) and that’s kind of venue where viewers
might be receptive to something like this.
Sarah is shy and insecure. She works at an arts & crafts
shop alongside her motherly boss, Joan (Molly Shannon), who is always ready
with kind words and homespun advice. Sarah’s two loves in life are a horse she
rode as a girl and the TV show “Purgatory.” Much to the chagrin of her extroverted
roommate, Nikki (Debby Ryan), Sarah hardly ever goes out – even on her
birthday. Determined to give Sarah a little social exposure, Nikki introduces
her to Darren (John Reynolds), her boyfriend’s roommate. Darren and Sarah hit
it off and things seem like they might be headed for indie rom-com territory…until
Sarah opens up to Darren about what she thinks is really going on out
There are two possible interpretations about what’s
happening with Sarah. The first is that, like a detective, she has pieced
together the clues to reveal an alarming scenario that involves a clandestine
alien invasion complete with cloning and possible time travel. She believes
that she is either a clone of her grandmother or a time-shifted version of the
selfsame woman. There appears to be physical evidence to back up her claims –
mysterious claw marks on walls and bruises all over her body. The other explanation
is that Sarah is deeply disturbed (both her mother and grandmother appear to
have suffered from mental illnesses) and everything we’re seeing is tinged by
Horse Girl’s tone is downbeat and the lack of energy
infects everything. The movie, desperate to evade anything even remotely melodramatic,
reduces the characters to automatons. There’s so much distance between the
audience and the Sarah that it’s difficult to connect with her on any level, much
less care whether her visions are real. There’s a point at which things ceased
to make sense and that’s where Horse Girl lost me.
Brie’s performance is strong but her character isn’t
relatable. She’s at her best early in the film, when Sarah appears to be more
asocial and insecure than unstable. With her girl-next-door appearance and
awkward mannerisms, Brie establishes Sarah as a traditional socially-inept but
good-hearted individual (a less aloof female Napoleon Dynamite). The movie’s
subsequent ventures into a quasi-science fiction territory make it increasingly
difficult to take the proceedings seriously.
The film’s placement on Netflix makes it available to a wide membership for sampling. Those who appreciate what it’s offering will comprise a small percentage of the viewing audience. Most will find it strange, inert, and confounding. I can’t claim to disagree with those judgments – I found the experience of watching Horse Girl to be more of a chore than a pleasure.
Horse Girl (United States, 2020)
Cast: Alison Brie, Molly Shannon, John Reynolds, John Ortiz, Debby Ryan, Paul Reiser, David Paymer
Screenplay: Jeff Baena, Alison Brie
Cinematography: Sean McElwee
Music: Josiah Steinbrick, Jeremy Zuckerman
U.S. Distributor: Netflix