Updated: Oct 9, 2020
Directed by: #JeffBaena
In Netflix's latest psychodrama, Alison Brie is Sarah, a sweet introvert with an affection for horses, crafts and her favourite supernatural crime show. Sarah discovers her vivid dreams are merging into her everyday life, blurring the line between reality and fantasy. Sarah's quiet life soon begins to unravel as she succumbs to frequent sleepwalking and recurring dreams. After a series of bizarre incidents, Sarah starts to seek answers for her strange behaviour, exploring an abundance of online conspiracy theories in the hope of finding an explanation.
Sarah's journey ambitiously tries to illustrate deteriorating mental health from the perspective of someone who can't tell the difference between her dreams and reality. Horse Girl is an unsettling and deceptive insight to worsening mental illness; this warm and familiar story about a socially awkward woman soon transforms into an erratic narrative with unexpectedly poignant commentary. As the plot develops, the audience is granted an uneasy peek into the lived experience of delusional paranoia, with Brie's enrapturing performance plunging viewers into a spiralling 'Alice in Wonderland' rabbit hole. As the logic of Sarah's world begins to collapse, her theories become more plausible as we start to question what is real and what isn't.
Scenes featuring tender conversations with her fellow craft store colleague Joan (Molly Shannon) snowball into a string of strange events and a dating subplot that grows darkly tragic, running the danger of audiences losing themselves in the sheer oddity. The quirky comedic set up summons half laughs and a misjudgement of the severity of Sarah's deterioration. The film's study of Sarah's psychological state leads us to an extended sequence detailing her breakdown, with practical elements such as costume design and lighting laying the foundation for a trippy atmosphere. Instead of showing how Sarah's hallucinations are causing her distress, Horse Girl indulges them by inviting us to shrug off our concerns in the curiosity to explore an absorbing extra-terrestrial mystery. The sensitivity that once drew us to Sarah's story soon evaporates. The narrative and central themes become too scattered to leave a lasting impression.
Alison Brie co-wrote the screenplay with Jeff Baena, drawing from her own family history with mental illness and Brie's performance feels authentic in its empathy. Unfortunately, Horse Girl's inability to decide between being a quirky comedy or an earnest exploration of mental illness stunts the commentary on Sarah's experience with mental illness.
Brie is superb, delivering sincerity and a gripping embodiment of mental illness in a compassionate but flawed plot. Brie's nuanced and in-depth performance helps Horse Girl overcome its surface-level storytelling.