Directed by: Jeff Baena
Written by: Jeff Baena & Alison Brie
Starring: Alison Brie, Debby Ryan, John Reynolds, Molly Shannon, John Ortiz, Paul Reiser
Reality provides comfort in the way it forms a solid ground for everyone to stand on. Even when things are bad, at least we know the experiences are real. This feeling evades the protagonist of Horse Girl, as it provides the opportunity for some mind-bending ideas and the opportunity for its lead actor to shine.
Sarah (Alison Brie) works at a fabric store and suffers from some shyness around others. She experiences some strange moments where she finds herself in places and has no idea how she arrived there. After her roommate sets her up with a friend, she believes to have found someone who believes in her experience, which only begins her downward spiral.
Ambiguity feels like the right word to describe what occurs in this film in a way that leaves plenty up to interpretation. You could take a pragmatic look at what occurs and see someone suffering from some mental impairment, but also buy into the reality our protagonist firmly believes. Just when you think the storytellers firmly land on something, other sequences transpire that may raise doubt in that belief. It falls on the viewer to take what the story presents, but one thing that cannot be questioned is Alison Brie’s outstanding performance.
My first experience in watching her work came in the sitcom, Community and from there I’ve seen her take on great dramas like Mad Men and GLOW. This turn has led her now to Horse Girl, which provides quite the meaty role. It’s certainly a bold performance and Brie took on the paranoia and pain that inhabits this character. A pain that comes from being unsure what her lineage passed down to her and the exuberance of finding out something that serves as a breakthrough. It’s one of those feelings where everything clicks and all you could not figure out suddenly works out. Brie does well to capture that in creating a character that genuinely struggles and can still form a bridge to connect to the audience.
Her performance works well with the tone set by co-writer/director Jeff Baena. Every interaction Sarah has comes with an intense feeling of cringe, as her mental capacity does not line up with others with how she perceives the world. Even the people that try to support her cannot fully understand her actions at times and just give one of those uneasy smiles of unsurety. I felt on edge for much of the first half of the feature because Sarah felt like such a delicate character that I did not want to get bruised by the words of others if they take offense to the words she spouts. It got to certain moments where I could barely look as her awkwardness clashes with reality. That tone received a boost by an almost techno score that underlies when she would get inquisitive or try to put things together.
The shortcomings of it come from the third act and all of the ambiguous actions that take place. I suppose reality makes things more tangible but I found that lacking when not knowing what actions actually occurred and what would just be taking place in Sarah’s head. Some moments were more crucial than others but the consequence that surrounded them could not be properly assessed if we have nothing to hold onto. It may be a case of ambiguity being the detriment to a narrative. The story ultimately surrounds someone afraid to come to terms with her reality and that the world around her does not have some supernatural interference that has impacted her world, which comes from fighting off trauma. Through watching harm occur to different people in her life, Sarah has suffered in ways she does not speak about but is shown for the audience to see. Those insufferable experiences create this for her, as she fights off the reality that life sucks sometimes and we need to accept that. At least that rests as my interpretation, as the ending allows for a completely different line of thinking.
All of it amalgamates to a story that seeks to confuse and makes you doubt almost everything you see. I imagine that with some refinement, this could have truly been excellent but the final product we received still has some good value, which I still view positively overall. It helps that it has someone like Alison Brie, who happens to be building herself quite a strong portfolio and continues to impress with the roles she takes on. Disturbing, uncomfortable, and confounding can all be used to describe Horse Girl, which fits the bill.