Truth and Movies

Horse Girl

Review by Stefania Sarrubba @freckledvixen

Directed by

Jeff Baena

Starring

Alison Brie Debby Ryan John Reynolds

Anticipation.

There’s potentially a lot that could go wrong with this one.

Enjoyment.

Alison Brie’s most compelling performance to date.

In Retrospect.

An empathetic depiction of mental illness, but the film fails to clear the hurdle it sets itself.

Alison Brie writes and stars in this absorbing but uneven portrait of a woman struggling with mental illness.

Before we even lay eyes on socially awkward Sarah (Alison Brie), we’re introduced to her adorable giggles. We then follow her around the craft shop she works at, advising amateur artists on which acrylic paint has just the right texture to it.

Our protagonist seems to be content with her somewhat lonely life. She visits the beautiful horse that used to be hers and binges supernatural crime show Purgatory (featuring Matthew Gray Gubler and Robin Tunney in scene-stealing cameos). Despite this rom-com-style introduction, Horse Girl isn’t a quirky, feel-good story. Its pastel premise becomes all the more unsettling as we dig deeper to uncover Sarah’s family history of mental illness.

Her routine is disrupted when she takes one of those home DNA tests and starts having a series of weird dreams suggesting she might be experiencing alien abduction. What follows is an unhealthy obsession for her own grandmother, who suffered from schizophrenia.

Co-written with director Jeff Baena, this is Brie’s first venture into screenwriting. A soft thriller with incursions into sci-fi territory, the film focuses on Sarah struggling to make sense of the world around her and come to terms with her troubled past.

Sarah needs help but doesn’t really know how to ask for it, regardless of the loving attitude of her roommate Nikki (Debby Ryan) and motherly coworker Joan (Molly Shannon). The film often highlights this alienation by using walls as framing devices to separate the character from those who care for her, particularly Darren (John Reynolds).

Horse Girl has a lot on its feeder – unprocessed trauma, offbeat humour, supernatural elements – but never settles on a specific genre. Its strongest aspect is a sensitive, nonjudgemental depiction of mental health issues, enhanced by a career-best performance from Brie, who revealed that she drew inspiration from her own grandmother’s struggles with mental health.

Served by an eerie score, Brie is most compelling when Sarah goes dark; taking Darren on a disaster date involving scissors as a weapon of choice. But Sarah’s sweetest, most vulnerable moments are also intriguing. Her relationship with disabled friend Heather (Meredith Hagner), who fell off a horse in front of her when they were younger, reaches its peak when Sarah imagines sleeping next to her.

Elsewhere, Sarah’s intense meeting with social worker Ethan (Jay Duplass) doubles as a comment on mental health care in the US. But this proves to be a standout moment in what is otherwise a rather clumsy film, one which dwells on its dreamlike aesthetic to the detriment of its plot and core narrative themes.

Published 6 Feb 2020

Tags: Alison Brie Jeff Baena

Anticipation.

There’s potentially a lot that could go wrong with this one.

Enjoyment.

Alison Brie’s most compelling performance to date.

In Retrospect.

An empathetic depiction of mental illness, but the film fails to clear the hurdle it sets itself.

Suggested For You

Unicorn Store

By Josh Slater-Williams

Brie Larson directs and stars in this enjoyably idiosyncratic comedy about realising your childhood dreams.

review

Life After Beth

By Rebecca Ellis

The comedy inherent in a human/zombie love pairing doesn’t get this tired and unambitious genre pastiche very far.

review

The Disaster Artist

By Hannah Woodhead

It’s a Franco bros two-for-one in this madcap making-of yarn about Tommy Wiseau’s The Room.

review

Little White Lies Logo

About Little White Lies

Little White Lies was established in 2005 as a bi-monthly print magazine committed to championing great movies and the talented people who make them. Combining cutting-edge design, illustration and journalism, we’ve been described as being “at the vanguard of the independent publishing movement.” Our reviews feature a unique tripartite ranking system that captures the different aspects of the movie-going experience. We believe in Truth & Movies.

Editorial

Design