‘Horse Girl’ is such a strange beast, (ha). It begins as something quite straightforward, a story of a strange girl living a desperately normal life. Early montages show with beautiful observation the bland charm of a hundred midwestern small talks. Alison Brie co-writes and stars as Sarah, a salesman at a crafts store who has these painfully mundane conversations, watches trashy tv, (lovingly recreated from shows like ‘Supernatural’ or ‘Grimm’), while making hand-braided lanyards for a horse that she doesn’t own yet seems to be her only friend.
It’s tonally a very hard film to describe. The film goes down this track of an intimate quiet character study. It’s a film produced by the Duplass Brothers and the film does start off as something like ‘The Puffy Chair’ but with intelligible dialogue, but I actually think the more accurate Duplassian reference is something like ‘Tully’ or the ‘Creep’ movies. ‘Horse Girl’ does the thing both of those movies do and that I just like in general in films, it starts off as one thing and gradually morphs into something all the more strange. The really high watermark for something like this is probably ‘Kill List’ and while not as dark or good, ‘Horse Girl’ does have a similar obliqueness and open-ended nature. About 20 minutes in the film starts revealing itself to be almost some kind of conspiracy thriller, and the film hints at deep unexplored traumas, hereditary mental illness, and deep wells of guilt.
Its strange quirks, misdirections, and genre trickery seem to have thrown off a lot of critics off. It’s a film that lacks the narrative closure of something like ‘Mysterious Skin’ with regards to its alien abduction versus trauma dialogue. It lacks the hard boundaries between what’s real and what’s not that a film like ‘Brazil’ has. That being said, I ultimately really liked those elements about it. It is less a film that fails to provide these elements but more a film that just doesn’t care to. The whole point of it seems to be that lack of closure. It is a film that takes Sarah’s paranoia, mental failings, social inadequacy, and trauma, and takes those things and looks it pretty straight in the face, at eye level. It takes Sarah absolutely seriously which is one of its greatest strengths. In this way, the film is less something that aims to give a full picture of the legacy of trauma in the way of something like ‘Mysterious Skin’, but a film that squarely aims to take us down this little garden path of what this life experience is like. Now, the fact that ‘Mysterious Skin’ does both is why it is a better movie, but ‘Horse Girl’ is also valid in its smaller scale portrait, I think.
It almost has an anticomedy vibe that reminded me of ‘The King of Comedy’, in just how things are very pointedly not funny, despite having a comedic structure around these things that are intentionally not funny. There is one very delightful moment though of explicit comedy around some very, very bad white rapping. This is interesting as ‘Horse Girl’ is directed by Jeff Beana who is a very curious filmmaker. His last and first film, ‘The Little Hours’ and ‘Life After Beth’ respectively were these indie spirited comedies that did attempt to have something fresh to say and tell a different kind of story, (and also divided their audience quite significantly). You also have the case of ‘Joshy’ by Benea, which very importantly has among its cast Joe Swanberg and Alex Ross Perry, two very distinctive directors in their own right. Ross Perry being the man behind ‘Listen Up Phillip’, ‘Her Smell’, & ‘Queen of the Earth’, and Swanberg being widely considered the man behind the whole genre of mumblecore. So, for anyone a bit surprised by this direction Benea has taken with this film well, there is precedent. The film also clearly has a bit of post-Lena-Dunham air to it, post ‘Girls’. It’s got a score that starts off very plinky-plonky in the way of ‘Girls’ despite the fact that the score does get more and more experimental as the film goes on, and also frankly more and more fucking brilliant. The film has got this hazy, very observational, vaguely pastel eye to it that gets more and more experimental as the film goes on, more and more tight and close and claustrophobic before ending up vaguely reminiscent of ‘Under The Skin’. One could almost look at ‘Horse Girl’ in this way as Benea trying to shrug off his post-mumble-core roots as we see him grow out of it and try on new skins as a filmmaker the more the film goes on. Another interesting connection is that while the film calls the works of Dunham to mind, the aforementioned Alex Ross Perry was an actor in Dunham’s debut feature film ‘Tiny Furniture’.
The film is fuelled by a suite of very strong performances, particularly a powerhouse performance from Brie who is really channelling a kind of millennial existential angst fuelled version of Vivien Leigh’s Blanche de Bois from ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’. The film also features a very strong performance from the charmingly goofy and mushy faced John Reynolds in what deserves to be a breakout role. He’s playing this romantic interest who’s come off the back of what he doesn’t seem to realise was an abusive relationship, rebounding hard for Sarah, who you just feel for so much as Sarah slowly unravels and he watches helplessly. There’s also a lovely performance from Debby Ryan in what is actually a very surprising role. She plays the beleaguered, distant flatmate, a role that I liked because it could so easily fall into cliches for easy conflict but, in this iteration, always has a sympathetic intention, is always actually trying to help until it just gets too much for someone who is an ordinary person to emotionally deal with. Ryan’s character in a way represents the true tragedy of the film, that try as you might try to help some people, mental health is too much for one person to save someone else from by oneself, and Sarah has no way to recognise help when its in front of her. There is also a delightful cameo by David Paymer.
So all in all, while Horse Girl may be slightly less than the sum of its fascinating parts, those parts are by themselves, still fascinating. It also sets up Brie as one of the most exciting creative voices coming out of the American Indie Comedy scene.