Film

Jeff Baena Explores the Intensity of Mental Illness in His Mystery, 'Horse Girl'

Alison Brie as Sarah in Horse Girl (2020) (IMDB)

Co-writer and star Alison Brie's unreliable narrator in Jeff Baena's Horse Girl makes for a compelling story about spiraling into mental illness.

Horse Girl
Jeff Baena

Netflix

January 2020

Other

A slow, intriguing burn that doesn't quite pull itself together in the end (and perhaps that's the point), Horse Girl is an artful character film that moves between a grounded portrayal of mental illness and Lynchian surrealism.

Produced by Duplass Brothers Productions and currently airing on Netflix, this is the latest film from writer/director Jeff Baena, who has worked with Alison Brie on 2017's comedy, The Little Hours. Brie stars and serves as a co-writer. In an episode of her co-star's podcast, There You Are with Debby Ryan, Brie states that Baena writes scripts in outline form and is partial to improvisation. In his past projects, improvisation has worked for humor's sake, but for Horse Girl, it adds realism through naturalistic character interactions.

Sarah (Alison Brie) is an introverted, socially awkward young woman who works at an arts and crafts store. She lives in an apartment with a roommate, Nikki (Debby Ryan), and has some hobbies, including taking a Zoomba class and watching a corny paranormal TV series. Sarah visits a horse riding stable occasionally where a horse she once owned is kept. Throughout her interactions, except for her coworker Joan (Molly Shannon), she makes people uncomfortable with her tendency to linger around. Brie's naturally wide eyes are perfect in depicting the gullibility of her character.

On the night of her birthday, Sarah is persuaded by Nikki to celebrate. The two of them get drunk with Nikki's boyfriend, Brian (Jake Picking), and his new roommate, Darren (John Reynolds). The attraction between Sarah and Darren is mutual, and he eventually asks her on a date.

To disrupt the tenderness, Baena interjects eerie moments that gradually grow in severity at precise times. Sarah sleepwalks, experiences lapses in time, and has a recurring dream of herself lying on the floor of a white room, two strangers laying on either side of her, portending a looming danger. Sarah contemplates her resemblance to her late grandmother. She develops an interest in aliens when researching the sensation of time loss. Her experiences with disorienting time loss seem harmless at first, but her research into it soon leads to odd conspiratorial connections. The story takes a sharp turn when Sarah takes Darren to the cemetery to visit her grandmother's grave.

Brie delivers a devoted performance in Horse Girl. She pins down the reserved, sweet demeanor of Sarah in the first half of the film, before Sarah's mental breakdown. There are moments when her innocence comes off as fun. Watching her move around stiffly with others in her Zoomba class is amusing, and the dance scene between her and Darren is an example of the goofiness that Brie has exhibited in past comedic roles. As soon as Sarah begins spilling her thoughts, Brie exercises her dramatic acting skills to convey Sarah's chaotic state of mind.

(IMDB)

Composers Josiah Steinbrick and Jeremy Zuckerman help build the bizarre tone of the film. Shimmering music matches tender moments. Droning sounds match Sarah's dream sequences. When Sarah tries to make sense of her dreams and losses of time, the severity is often downplayed by a mischievous tune, which makes it seem like she's investigating things like a kid detective would; enthusiastic, disbelief suspended. As she loses track of reality, gentle music plays, which, at that point, adds to the disturbing feeling of an unsettled mind.

What's most interesting about Horse Girl is that the film never strays from Sarah's point of view even as her thought processes veer out of control. Elements of her mind bleed into each other illogically, which is visualized by editor Ryan Brown's experimentation to portray the way her mind works: subtle cuts and slow dissolve transitions create time and space lapses; ominous sound edits portend her deteriorating mental state. The disruptive edits are a bit clichéd, but they spark enough curiosity to see where it takes the story.

Baena does a great job of avoiding overt depictions and storytelling in terms of illustrating Sarah's declining mental state. His use of close-up and slow zoom-in shots create moments of claustrophobia as her mental instability closes in on her. Details that Sarah notices in certain scenes don't follow the logic of following scenes, for example, one actor is switched for another in portraying a single character. These are inventive ways of depicting Sarah's growing confusion. They are disorienting, stressful, and very effective.

Some aspects of the plot are left unresolved, such as the wall in Sarah's apartment that looks like it was damaged by a large animal. Past trauma troubles Sarah, but it's not detailed enough to understand what it may be or why it affects her. Certain scant scenes involving family members and friends are meant to allude to answers but only lead to more questions. Viewers will be left wanting more information about Sarah's relationship with these people, as well as the meaning of the horse, without getting any clarity in the end.

The final scene elicits more than one interpretation, and viewers can find closure in the established ambiguity, but they won't experience a neatly tied-up ending -- just as lingering mental illness will not offer a clear resolution.

8
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch Are 'Live at the Village Vanguard' to Raise Money for Musicians

Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch release a live recording from a 2018 show to raise money for a good cause: other jazz musicians.

Music

Lady Gaga's 'Chromatica' Hides Its True Intentions Behind Dancefloor Exuberance

Lady Gaga's Chromatica is the most lively and consistent record she's made since Born This Way, embracing everything great about her dance-pop early days and giving it a fresh twist.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Street Art As Sprayed Solidarity: Global Corona Graffiti

COVID-19-related street art functions as a vehicle for political critique and social engagement. It offers a form of global solidarity in a time of crisis.

Music

Gretchen Peters Honors Mickey Newbury With "The Sailor" and New Album (premiere + interview)

Gretchen Peters' latest album, The Night You Wrote That Song: The Songs of Mickey Newbury, celebrates one of American songwriting's most underappreciated artists. Hear Peters' new single "The Sailor" as she talks about her latest project.

Music

Okkyung Lee Goes From Classical to Noise on the Stellar 'Yeo-Neun'

Cellist Okkyung Lee walks a fine line between classical and noise on the splendid, minimalist excursion Yeo-Neun.

Film

Alastair Sim: A Very English Character Actor Genius

Alastair Sim belongs to those character actors sometimes accused of "hamming it up" because they work at such a high level of internal and external technique that they can't help standing out.

Music

Joe Hertler & the Rainbow Seekers Head "Underwater" in New Video (premiere)

Celebrating the first anniversary of Paper Castle, folksy poppers Joe Hertler & the Rainbow Seekers release an uplifting new video for opening track, "Underwater".

Music

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith's New LP Is Lacking in Songcraft but Rich in Texture

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith's The Mosaic of Transformation is a slightly uneven listen. It generally transcends the tropes of its genre, but occasionally substitutes substance for style.

Music

Buzzcocks' 1996 Album 'All Set' Sees the Veteran Band Stretching Out and Gaining Confidence

After the straightforward and workmanlike Trade Test Transmissions, Buzzcocks continued to hone their fresh identity in the studio, as exhibited on the All Set reissue contained on the new box-set Sell You Everything.

Books

Patrick Madden's 'Disparates' Makes Sense in These Crazy Times

There's no social distancing with Patrick Madden's hilarious Disparates. While reading these essays, you'll feel like he's in the room with you.

Music

Perfume Genius Purges Himself and It's Contagious

You need to care so much about your art to pack this much meaning into not only the words, but the tones that adorn and deliver them. Perfume Genius cares so much it hurts on Set My Heart on Fire Immediately.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Confinement and Escape: Emma Donoghue and E.L. Doctorow in Our Time of Self-Isolation

Emma Donoghue's Room and E.L. Doctorow's Homer & Langley define and confront life within limited space.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.