It’s a testament to Alison Brie’s performance as Sarah, a mousy and socially awkward thirtysomething – huge eyes seemingly on the verge of welling with tears at all times, voice pitched up in uncertainty – that it’s clear from the first minutes of Horse Girl something is off. Sarah leads a quiet, tentative life: a job at a craft store, pop-ins to offer unsolicited advice to young riders at a barn housing her beloved horse Willow, nights on the couch obsessively watching her favorite sci-fi TV series, Purgatory. But the routine skirts around a yawning darkness: minutes into the film, her roommate’s boyfriend finds her sleepwalking in the kitchen, blank-staring at the wall; the barn owners seem wary of her sunny presence.
Horse Girl, directed by Jeff Baena and co-written by Brie, observes – and then careens into – Sarah’s loosening grip with reality. The story begins in familiar enough territory: Sarah struggles to connect with either her Zumba classmates or her self-absorbed roommate, Nikki (Debby Ryan), who throws her an impromptu birthday party meant to comically observe people’s attempts to seem cool. Her supervisor at work Joan (Molly Shannon), seemingly her only confidante, gifts her a home DNA kit, triggering an obsession with her late grandmother, with whom she shares an uncanny resemblance, and the family stories of her insanity, a fate Sarah clearly fears she’s destined for.
Brie, who based the script partly on her own family’s history with paranoid schizophrenia and depression, has said the project explores “how terrifying it is to not be able to trust your own mind”. Indeed, the first half of the film works well as an extreme distillation of that fear, or of the nagging sense one might get these days that everything you read and see might not be quite real. Sarah’s first inklings of doubt are eerie and subtle – mysterious scratches on the walls, lapses of memory, a stranger producing acute deja vu – but able to be rationalized. The ear-ringing score, occasionally evoking the pitter-patter of bugs, and Sarah’s zooming focus on innocuous objects – clocks, doorknobs, shower drains – enhance a feeling of detachment and sleeplessness, or the jarring trap of self-delusion.
Throughout this, the film grounds Sarah’s heightening confusion in several trustworthy figures – Joan, sweet and unexpected suitor Darren (John Reynolds), and Nikki – who seem alarmed by Sarah’s tenuous grasp on the real. But as Sarah’s lucid dreams cross over more and more into her waking life, and her anxiety escalates from self-doubt to alien paranoia and an obvious mental health crisis, Horse Girl makes the truly unfortunate decision to shift from contextualizing Sarah’s delusions to indulging them.
The pivot into Sarah’s lucid dreams sinks what was a provocative portrayal of self-doubt into a confusing, ambitious trip that dabbles too far into supernaturalism to maintain coherence. Twists in the final half-hour bring up more ethical questions than the film can sustain: where are her friends? Who’s responsible for her? Instead of focusing on getting her help or maintaining a sense of reality amid the vertigo, Horse Girl goads us to root for Sarah in her alien abduction narrative and mission to evade control – or psychiatric help. It’s unclear, by the end, what is lucid dream and what is her awake state; the film seems to take the concerning position that madness is the natural end point.
On the plus side, the role offers ample material for Brie to demonstrate her range, and she’s brilliant here: open and vulnerable, at times panicked but always empathetic, seamlessly rippling through various heightened emotions in a single scene. Her script is operating in rich territory – when it works, as a character study of an adrift loner in an increasingly isolated world, Sarah’s nervous second-guessing is genuinely unnerving, and catchy. But the ambition of Horse Girl ultimately gets the better of it, turning what could be a dark but insightful depiction on signs missed in a mental health crisis into an agreement on one’s madness – a game of what’s real, and what’s not, that feels unsettling to play.
Horse Girl is available on Netflix now.