Everyone loves a good horse girl joke (don’t call me out, you know we all do), but
Netflix’s Horse Girl isn’t quite the indie comedy its name suggests. Directed by Jeff Baena
and co-written by Baena and Alison Brie (who plays protagonist Sarah), Horse Girl traces
Sarah’s life with an increasing sense of unease as her paranoia overwhelms her and she
is admitted to a psychiatric ward following delusions of alien abductions. Whilst the film
excels in its character work and intricate attention to detail, it seems to lose itself in
dreamlike sequences of hallucinations that derail from the many questions set up in the
earlier parts of the film.
As we see Sarah’s breakdown and spiral once she starts to lose her grip on reality, it’s never quite clear how many of her delusions are real. Whilst this does unsettle and build suspense, the film arguably sacrifices compassion for Sarah’s paranoid hallucinations by indulging them. This marks a sharp reversal from the detailed attention the film pays in its first half to treading the line between reality and delusion. The film sets up little breadcrumbs from its onset, like Sarah’s obsession with her horse Willow and the faces from her alien abduction dreams. Horse Girl later returns to these to weave them into Sarah’s hallucinations and flashbacks in a masterful way, even if the source of her delusions are never fully explained. Perhaps part of the art of Horse Girl is in what it leaves unanswered, since, after all, life isn’t full of explanations, and striving too hard to find them often leads to the same delusions as depicted in the movie.
The film does have its strengths. Alison Brie’s acting is emotional and emphatic and it’s
hard not to relate to Sarah as she struggles to find genuine connection to her modern
life. The depictions of Sarah’s personal relationships also shine through; the friendship
between Sarah and her boss Joan (Molly Shannon) is particularly touching and heartfelt.
Despite the overwhelming sense of unease and impending dread, the film still manages
to hit comedic notes. This makes the detachment built up through the film’s soundtrack
and colourful cinematography all the more jarring during the dreamlike sequences that
play out in the second half of the film.
Horse Girl is gripping, intense and surreal. It’s impossible to watch it and not feel
unnerved. The cyclical nature of the film and its motifs reinforces the delusions Sarah
eventually comes to believe, and it’s testament to the strength of the build up that we
are prepared to go with it. Despite a somewhat underwhelming ending that fails to fully
tie together the many threads laid out by the film, it still beautifully portrays scenes of
dreamlike paranoia. After all, for Sarah it doesn’t matter whether her delusions are real
or not- to her they feel real, and maybe that should be enough for us as viewers.
[Catherine Bouchard, she/her]