There’s a fine line between mental illness and alien abduction.
That’s the dance played out in HORSE GIRL (2020), an intriguing drama about a sweet yet socially awkward young woman who suffers from nightmares and blackouts which she interprets as alien abductions while those around her believe more matter-of-factly that she suffers from mental illness.
Just where the truth lies is something the movie doesn’t make crystal clear.
HORSE GIRL tells the story of Sarah (Alison Brie) a shy young woman who works in a fabric store during the day and comes home to her apartment at night where she spends her evenings alone watching reruns of her favorite science fiction TV show, while her roommate Nikki (Debby Ryan) occupies herself with her boyfriend Brian (Jake Picking). Sarah also has an affinity for a horse Willow which she visits every day at the stable, much to the annoyance of Willow’s owners. We learn later that Willow used to be Sarah’s horse but isn’t any more.
On her birthday, Sarah receives a birthday card from her co-worker Joan (Molly Shannon) who asks her if she has any special plans to celebrate, to which Sarah lies and says she’s going to go out to dinner with some friends from her dance class. Later, we witness the awkward scene where Sarah tries to make plans with these friends but fails miserably, so she returns to her apartment, content to spend her birthday alone, but her roommate Nikki feels bad for her and coaxes Brian to invite his friend Darren (John Reynolds) over who had recently broke up with his girlfriend. Surprisingly, Darren and Sarah hit it off well, and they agree to see each other again for a date.
Up until this point, HORSE GIRL has the makings of a tender romantic love story, but it’s at this time when Sarah realizes she’s been having some pretty bizarre dreams, dreams in which sleep walks and finds herself in other places, not knowing how she got there, and when she returns home, she finds that while she believes she’s been gone for hours, only minutes have passed in real-time.
She does some research on the internet and reads about alien abductions, and the descriptions of these abductions match things she has seen and felt in her dreams. It’s also at this time when she begins to think more about her grandmother and mother, both of whom dealt with mental health issues and spoke of experiences similar to hers. In her mom’s case, she recently committed suicide. But Sarah fixates on her grandmother, who in old photographs is the splitting image of Sarah, which gets Sarah thinking about clones.
Once Sarah starts speaking about this to her friends and family, it’s easy for them— and for the audience— to believe she has inherited the same mental health issues as her mother and grandmother. But Sarah is convinced otherwise, and she sets out to prove it.
HORSE GIRL is a thought-provoking movie that is well-written by director Jeff Baena and lead actress Alison Brie. And while its story is never fleshed out as well as one would hope, it still delivers in that it takes its audience for a ride that is compelling throughout, the only drawback being a conclusion that is a bit too open-ended.
I really enjoyed Alison Brie in the lead role as Sarah. She makes Sarah likeable and vulnerable. She nails the introvert persona suffering from social anxiety to a tee, and the scenes where she tries to be social are painfully realistic. And she does it without being cliché or superficial. In all other aspects of her life, in her job, for instance, she’s comfortable and quite good at it. So, Brie creates a three-dimensional character who we like even before all the weird things begin to happen to her, and once they do, we empathize with her and want her to be okay, even as it becomes increasingly apparent that she’s not okay.
Brie is a wonderful actress who I first noticed on the TV show MAD MEN (2007-2015) where she played Trudy Campbell. She also stars on the TV show GLOW (2017-2020). She’s in nearly every scene in HORSE GIRL, and she easily carries this film on her back.
And as I said, she also wrote the screenplay, along with director Jeff Baena. One of the best parts of the screenplay is how well-written the supporting characters are. They come off as real people, which in this story, is important, because Sarah increasingly becomes unstable, and if she were surrounded by a bunch of cardboard clichés, it would certainly make her story less believable. But that’s not the case here as these supporting characters have real reactions and really care for her.
In one of the film’s best sequences, when Sarah is on her date with Darren, it’s all going so well, and when Sarah opens up to him and starts talking about what she suspects is happening to her, at first since he’s happy and genuinely likes Sarah, he’s supportive and all ears. But as Sarah grows more intense and unpredictable and unrealistic, she becomes scary, and Darren’s reaction changes. Had he been a cliché, the boyfriend only out for sex, for example, this scene would not have worked as well. Instead, it works wonderfully, because Darren tries so hard to understand Sarah and to accept what she’s saying, but as she reacts more violently, he, like the audience, becomes unnerved and he has no choice but to react to that. It’s one of the more honest— and frightening— sequences in the film.
As I said, the one weakness in the movie is the ending. Based on the final sequence, you get a pretty good idea on which side the moviemakers favor here, mental illness or alien abduction, but still there’s something missing, and that something is an independent view on the matter. The film is told through Sarah’s eyes, and so even that final scene is from Sarah’s perspective, and hence you really don’t know its true meaning, which often is not a bad thing in a movie, and it’s not a terribly bad thing in this movie, as I still liked it a lot in spite of the ending, but a more emphatic ending would have helped, as it would have given this curious tale an exclamation point on which to end, rather than the way it ends now, with an ellipse.
HORSE GIRL also has an admirable supporting cast. Debby Ryan does a fine job as Sarah’s roommate Nikki, who although she gets frustrated with her does care about her. Likewise, Jake Picking is solid as Nikki’s boyfriend Brian, who’s much less supportive of Sarah and thinks she’s flat-out weird. Molly Shannon also does a nice job as Sarah’s co-worker Joan who also seems to care about her.
I really enjoyed John Reynolds as Darren, the guy who sincerely wants to start a relationship with Sarah, but he unfortunately picked the wrong week to ask her out. Reynolds does an awesome job making this guy a three-dimensional character, and he does it in very little screen time. Reynolds plays quirky Officer Callahan on TV’s STRANGER THINGS (2016-2020). He makes much more of an impact here in HORSE GIRL.
HORSE GIRL also benefits from a couple of screen veterans in the cast. Paul Reiser shows up in one sequence as Sarah’s step-father. It’s just one sequence, but it’s a good one. And John Ortiz plays a man Sarah sees in her recurring dreams, and then later she sees him in real life.
I liked the way director Jeff Baena handled this one. Sure, it’s a bit of a slow burn, as the pace is measured, and the first third is a straight drama. In fact, when Sarah experiences her first weird nightmare, it comes out of nowhere and is quite jarring. If HORSE GIRL were a horror movie, it would fall into the category of quiet horror. So, call this one a quiet mystery/thriller.
But it works.
HORSE GIRL is a captivating drama with sprinkles of mystery and science fiction thrown in that takes its time telling its weirdly provocative story, and while its ending isn’t completely satisfying, it remains a movie that creates a sympathetic main character who’s searching for answers about her past and her future. You’ll want her to find them.
It’s now available on Netflix.