Horse Girl opens with a conversation between Sarah (Alison Brie) and her crafts store colleague Joan (Molly Shannon) about ‘DNA N U’, a service that tells you where in the world you come from. Sarah is intrigued; she doesn’t know much about her family. The camera moves to an overhead shot of a sea of plain, pale blue fabric being sliced, straight down the middle, by Sarah’s scissors. This simple act is a statement of intent from the film – a visual metaphor for how Sarah’s seemingly meek life, mousey exterior, and sense of reality is to be split apart.
The first act of Horse Girl paints a vivid picture of how Sarah spends her days. She talks to customers about paint, she visits her horse, she goes to Zumba, and she sits alone watching a trashy supernatural crime procedural before bed. So far, so normal for a Sundance indie flick. But as the film moves along and we get an insight into what’s going on inside Sarah’s head, it’s clear that this is no ordinary character study.
Alison Brie co-wrote the film with director Jeff Baena, taking inspiration from her own personal history of mental illness, as well as that of her mother and grandmother. This grounding in truth shines through in the authentic nature of the film overall, as well as Brie’s extraordinary performance at the heart of it.
Her exterior is transformed through extra bushy hair, a pale complexion and contemporary yet dowdy costume design from Beth Morgan. Taking on an entirely different physicality to her own, Brie expresses Sarah’s character with a higher voice, hunched posture, and staccato movements. Her round, wide eyes make for perfect windows into Sarah’s complex internal experience, and she performs even her most wildly delusional moments with such integrity that they feel as real to the viewer as they do to her.
Equally, the supporting cast is just as strong – Molly Shannon radiates warmth as the closest thing to a friend that Sarah has whilst John Reynolds is goofy and charming as love interest Darren. Jay Duplass embodies the care and concern that the film has provoked in the viewer for this supremely vulnerable character as her therapist Ethan.
As Sarah’s anxiety and confusion intensifies, so too does the surreal imagery and storytelling. When she starts to blackout and lose chunks of time, you’re every bit as disorientated as she is. The score is an eclectic cacophony of synthy bops, jazz drums and plucking strings, designed to throw you off balance. There’s an all-white space she visits in her dreams with shadowy figures at the edges, hypnotic shots of water draining down a plughole – and it all builds to a prolonged, fever dream-like sequence that takes Horse Girl to its most bizarre heights as Sarah’s perception of reality reaches its most blurry.
At times, it all feels like too much to take in; too much plot, too many characters, visions too weird to take seriously. But the best thing about this movie is just that – how seriously it’s taking Sarah, and everything she’s going through. It never patronises her, laughs at her, and the people around her continue to treat her with kindness and compassion, even as her mental state becomes increasingly unstable. The ending acts as the ultimate show of respect for Sarah’s story, leaving the viewer with just as many unanswered questions at the close of the film as there were at the beginning.
Horse Girl does what any great film should – it takes you out of your own head, and puts you in someone else’s. In this case, doing so provides a necessary insight into the reality of what it’s like to constantly question what’s real. This film is strange for sure, but its boldness in depicting the true strangeness of an experience like Sarah’s is what makes it so impactful.
by Sophie Butcher
Sophie Butcher (she/her) is a writer living in the North East of England. Not fussy when it comes to genre, she’s most passionate about seeing more queer stories and diverse bodies on screen. She’s a big fan of golden hour cinematography, great movie kisses and anything with Keanu Reeves. You can follow her on Twitter at @sophiefbutcher, and read all her film writing here.