Netflix’s new release of Horse Girl is a full on trip that I had to see twice. I felt like I missed things that my own interpretation and expectation blinded me from seeing at first. I had an idea of where this film was going and I was wrong for all the right reasons. I hesitate to say that you need to see this film twice, because maybe you don’t. Maybe you’re a lot smarter than me, or maybe you just think it’s a waste of time. But that being said, I did give it a second watch, and I’m very glad I did.
As a fan of John Baena’s Little Hours, I was sure this was set to be something out of the ordinary. Horse Girl is an edgy, artsy, Donnie Darko-esque spectacle that at first glance, seems like it’s not about anything. But the longer you sit through Sarah’s uneasy journey and watch her mind unravel, you don’t know whether you’re supposed to laugh or cry. And that’s when Horse Girl has you exactly where it wants you. It makes you uncomfortable by showing you how people react to mental illness. It makes you want to laugh at scenes that you’re not sure are supposed to be funny. It’s at times confusing and unclear. But much like other mental health commentaries such as Hereditary and Tully, there are clues throughout that you might not catch on a first viewing. And by the end, you have all the pieces you need to construct your own narrative out of its disjointed journey.
Sarah, played by Alison Brie, is a soft spoken woman who works at a craft shop and visits her horse Willow almost every day. She spends her free time making bracelets and watching her favorite tv show Purgatory. The film takes us on a ride through Sarah’s day to day discoveries and offers glimpses into her past. We watch her begin to spiral as she starts having strange dreams, loses track of time, and believes she is being abducted by aliens as the clone of her grandmother.
Horse Girl is what happens when you have a solid idea for a film but only write half the script. In a time where people mistake a well written script for good improv acting (*AHEM* Marriage Story stans), it just feels kinda cheap to make a film with 100% improvised dialogue. I’m not gonna say it’s a problem for everybody, but for me, it’s noticeable. The first half of the film is like watching an amateur acting troupe embarrass themselves for 40 minutes. It felt like one of those YouTube cringe compilations my boyfriend makes me watch. What strikes me the most is that some of the actors are really good with it, but Brie just can’t seem to make it work. At times, it can feel realistic and awkward when she stumbles over her words, but too much of it started to make me worried if she forgot how to act. I understand wanting to try something different, but for a story so deep and personal to the filmmakers, it feels almost reckless to gamble on not writing dialogue. It’s really a shame because visually, the film is incredible, it just suffers from its occasional stiff lines.
ACTING | CHARACTERS | DIALOGUE:
The entire cast does a decent job, but I still can't buy Brie’s performance in the first half of the film. She stumbles on her words a lot where it feels like she is relying on the other actor to do the work and not just pretending to be awkward. The second half she really shows us what she intended for the character, and it’s great.
The importance of this film is that it shows us a variety of societal reactions to those suffering from mental illness, ranging from ignorance to compassion. Each person in Sarah’s life plays a role in that. Her roommate Nikki (Debby Ryan) gets the most aggravated with her when she isn’t making sense. Darren (John Reynolds) is patient with her until it starts to affect his own being and then he dips. Her step father (Paul Reiser) just throws money at her to solve her problems. Joan (Molly Shannon), her coworker, helps her out in her lowest moments. It brings an important point to light of how out of control people can get when someone is having a mental episode. No reaction is perfect, but they can all happen. We also get a nice cameo by Jay Duplass which is never a bad thing.
VISUAL EFFECTS | MAKEUP | DESIGN:
MUSIC | SCORE | SOUND DESIGN:
Along with the visuals, the sound design is stunning. Unless you count the sound of Darren’s voice, in which case you’d be forgiven for mistaking this for a mumblecore film. The score takes a distinctly spooky approach. Many scenes make Horse Girl feel like a horror film, and I think that’s due in large part to the score. The more intense scenes use a techy, heart pounding rhythmic beat to build tension. And it makes sense! Mental illness can be a scary thing, and when Sarah is having an episode, it wouldn’t feel right to have a lighthearted score, like her lullaby tune when she’s going to sleep.
Visually, the film is incredible. It makes me really curious to read the screenplay, because although the dialogue is presumably non-existent, the action description must be impeccably meticulous. Everything is so deliberate, and even if I don’t know why, I believe that everything we see is there for a reason. Most of the effects appear to be practically done as well, with minimal use of CGI, which I always appreciate. The ability to evoke a range of emotions through visuals alone, to me, signifies an expert understanding of the craft of filmmaking. There is some real beauty at work here, and to say the film is visually driven would be an understatement. Horse Girl, if nothing else, is truly a spectacle in the back half.
It can be argued that Horse Girl is a horror film in it’s own way. Horror films love to bank on the mentally ill for entertainment value, setting us up to be afraid of them in real life. The scary part about Horse Girl is that what happened to Sarah happens to people all the time, it just isn’t talked about because people are, well, afraid of it. In an interview with the cast, Molly Shannon remarked that when she first saw the trailer, she didn’t realize it was a horror film. As amusing as it was, I think she makes a very important point. Horse Girl is a film about mental illness. Sometimes we don’t realize how scary that can be until someone points a lens at it.