“I have high hopes for you and I’m rooting for you.”
This quote from the new Netflix film “Horse Girl” which premiered at Sundance just a week ago and streaming Friday, February 7, perfectly embodies our own thoughts from start to finish about Sarah (Alison Brie). Sarah has dreams and events that outwardly seem inexplicable and with the lines of reality blurred, looking for the answers to give her inward peace.
Sarah, a very ordinary yet socially awkward young woman who lives a rather mundane life, is seemingly cheerful as she works at her routine job at an arts and crafts store. There’s also an element of sadness just beneath that upbeat exterior and as her boss Joan (Molly Shannon) discusses her results from a DNA testing system. It’s our first clue that perhaps Sarah has a few unidentified issues yet to unfold.
With no friends except a reluctantly tolerant roommate Nikki (Debby Ryan), Sarah fills her days working, engaging with customers, and visiting a horse farm, but there’s something unwelcoming about her presence there. In the evenings, comfy in her pajamas, she continually re-watches her favorite supernatural crime series, “Purgatory.” The wall which she has built to shield her from new relationships is gently crumbled as Nikki introduces her, with the best of intentions, to her boyfriend Brian’s (Jake Picking) roommate, Darren (John Reynolds). With this we get an even clearer glimpse into what is Sarah’s mental state truly is. The mere coincidences and her perception of reality which includes paranoia, delusions, cloning, and aliens plunges us into her thought process as we dig our heels into the ground. We don’t want her to go down this path because we’re rooting for her, but it’s out of our control and apparently hers as well.
We are slowly introduced to additional characters such as Gary (Paul Reiser) and Ron (John Ortiz), and of course the horse, Willow, but it is her newfound connection with Darren who unwittingly feeds into her psychosis that pushes her story forward at warp speed and poses questions that will thoughtfully be answered later in the story. The lines of reality, both hers and ours, intersect and the demons of mental illness overpower her ability to suppress the inevitable. The story becomes a surreal exploration of Sarah’s mind as it intertwines with our own perceived reality.
Brie develops her character with a great complexity and understanding. Your heart breaks for her as you want her to overcome her issues and her genetic predisposition, one which she regrettably fully understands. It is the fragility of mental health that Brie finds a way to expertly portray while outwardly maintaining the appearance as the sweet girl next door. But as her character’s difficulties increase, her entire appearance slightly changes along with her rate and style of speech. Quite notably, the musical score becomes a frenetic undercurrent washing over the film to accentuate Sarah’s unraveling. The attention to this type of detail creates a believable and relatable character, but no matter how out of control Sarah gets, we still have hope for her.
Reynolds adds a bit of charming comedy to the story as Sarah’s love interest, Darren. He portrays his character as earnest, sweet, and thoughtful even in the face of total confusion as he contributes to Sarah’s symptoms. Additionally, Shannon couldn’t have been better cast as the supportive mother-figure and work colleague, allowing us all to see what kindness can do, but its limits as well. And Jay Duplass gives an understated and thoughtful performance as the social worker which punctuates the need for professional intervention.
Co-writer Brie with Jeff Baena, who directed the film, have a keen understanding of the appropriate tone with a character study of a woman who is slowly unraveling, but always puts the burden of proof on we, the viewer. Even to the very end, makes you question what’s real and what’s not. Distinguishing the difference between the two is not an easy task which is what makes this film incredibly engaging and thought-provoking. There’s not a wasted moment in this film as all are vital to Sarah’s finale and our own questions after the credits roll.
“Horse Girl” is a standout film highlighting the emotional and intellectual components of mental illness. While we may not walk in her shoes to gain empathy, we do walk alongside her to gain insight and knowledge as well as sympathy. Beautifully filmed with a story that captures your heart while finding a way to make you question the reality of what you’re seeing, it’s a film that shines a bright light on its subject matter and augmented by skillfully thoughtful acting.
Reel Talk Rating: 3½ out of 4 Stars
A version of this story appeared in the Friday digital edition of the Daily Journal.