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‘Horse Girl’ a wild, weird ride

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Sometimes, you sit down to watch a movie with certain expectations, only to have those expectations completely subverted because it turned out you really didn’t have any idea what you were getting into.

That’s an apt description of my experience with “Horse Girl,” newly streaming on Netflix after its recent debut at Sundance. Starring Alison Brie, who co-wrote the screenplay alongside director Jeff Baena, the film is a difficult-to-describe experience, a seemingly straightforward look at a socially awkward woman’s struggles that rapidly deteriorates into a what’s real/what’s not tightrope walk between mental illness and paranormal experience – and it occasionally loses its balance.

It’s an uneven and strange viewing experience, one that is unafraid to be opaque and confusing with regards to what is happening and why (or even if). The jaggedness of the plot and the fluidity between reality and fantasy and which is which can present some problems in terms of engagement with the story. Still, with a strong performance from Brie and some bold aesthetic and narrative choices, there’s more than enough here to warrant a look.

Sarah (Alison Brie, TV’s “GLOW”) is a quiet young woman. She’s a little strange and not great with social situations. She loves her job at the local craft store Great Lengths, where she spends a good deal of time with her co-worker Joan (Molly Shannon, “Sextuplets”). She spends most of her off time at home, obsessing over a low-rent paranormal TV show called “Purgatory.” Her roommate Nikki (Debby Ryan, TV’s “Insatiable”) likes her well enough, though she’s concerned about Sarah’s odd tendencies; Nikki’s boyfriend Brian (Jake Picking, “Blockers”) is less forgiving.

Sarah’s other outlet is her regular visits to the local horse farm, where she checks in with Willow, the horse that once belonged to her; she kind of creeps some people out, but the owners Cheryl (Lauren Weedman, TV’s “Arrested Development”) and Joe (Toby Huss, TV’s “Dickinson”) don’t have the heart to ban her.

Sarah’s mom passed away a couple of years ago and her dad left when she was a teenager; however, she still has a very good relationship with Gary (Paul Reiser, TV’s “Mad About You”). She has a family history of mental illness; her mom committed suicide, while her grandmother dealt with hallucinations likely brought on by schizophrenia.

That history comes to the forefront when Sarah starts to have inexplicable experiences of her own. She randomly gets nosebleeds. She sleepwalks. She finds herself in unfamiliar places with no idea of how she got there. And she has vivid, lucid dreams in which she finds herself trapped in a featureless white space, alone save for two insensate others … and an ominous, alien presence.

All of this sends Sarah spiraling as she is overwhelmed with fear regarding what has happened to her and anger at her inability to get anyone to believe her. Theory after theory bubbles up into her head, each more convoluted and terrifying than the last; the explanations she creates for her circumstances grow ever stranger until she has alienated and/or terrified everyone near her.

Ultimately, Sarah comes up with a solution – a drastic and scary solution to a problem that may or may not be what she believes it to be.

“Horse Girl” is a strange movie, unafraid to careen wildly between realism and the fantastical; the aesthetic and tonal shifts alone are both jarring and oddly engaging. Honestly, this seeming inconsistency should be off-putting, and yet here, it mostly works. There are some striking visual moments here, particularly the instances of impossible transition as we follow Sarah when she crosses from shared reality to the bizarre realm that may or may not be real.

The fractured nature of the narrative, that refusal to totally commit to what’s real and what isn’t, actually serves to paint an effective portrait of Sarah’s suffering. These changes – whether they’re coming from external sources or from within her own brain – are sudden and shocking; she’s ill-equipped to deal with them. Fear, mania, paranoia – she runs the gamut. I won’t go so far as to call it an accurate representation of mental illness, but it is definitely true to its own ideas and its own rules.

Much of the credit for what works here goes to Brie. Her performance is what anchors the film, providing a solid foundation. Of particular note is her portrayal of Sarah’s slow deterioration; it’s so gradual and subtle that we find ourselves trapped in doubt just as she herself is. It’s heartbreaking. While Brie is the driving force, there are a couple of standouts among the supporting cast. Shannon is excellent, perfectly embodying a blend of friend and maternal figure. Ryan is really good as the sympathetic-but-irritated Nikki, while Picking is suitably douchebro-y as Nikki’s boyfriend.

(Also of note are Robin Tunney and Matthew Gray Gubler, who play the leads in the TV show “Purgatory” over which Sarah obsesses. It’s a real commitment to the bit that is really effective.)

“Horse Girl” is a strange movie – particularly in its more hallucinatory moments. It’s not always easy to follow or to take entirely seriously, but in the end, it overcomes its flaws thanks to an underlying sincerity and a legitimately strong performance from Brie. It might not always make sense, but it still works; it’s the kind of movie that’ll leave you scratching your head … in a (mostly) good way.

[3 out of 5]

Last modified on Tuesday, 11 February 2020 06:57

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