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Non-Review Review: Horse Girl

Horse Girl is certainly an ambitious work, if not an entirely successful one.

Directed by Jeff Baena and co-written with star Alison Brie, Horse Girl is essentially a study of a socially awkward young woman who gradually loosens her grip on reality. Sarah is a charming and isolated young woman. She works a steady job at an arts and crafts shop, to which she seems quite suited – she’s immediately able to identify the best paint for a classroom setting. She lives with a roommate who clearly harbours some affection for her. She assists at the local stables. She even attends weekly dance fitness classes.

Horsing around.

However, beneath the surface, Sarah is increasingly isolated. She lives in a world of her own, absorbed in her supernatural procedurals, lying about the extent of her social circle, and haunted by dreams that don’t seem quite right. Sarah increasingly begins to feel that there is something very wrong with the world, as she experiences lost time and lucid dreams. Naturally, things only escalate from there.

Horse Girl plays with some interesting ideas, and approaches its subject matter in interesting ways, but it suffers a little bit too much from a suffocating sense of forced whimsy. Horse Girl premiered at Sundance, and for all its ambition, it is very much a “Sundance indie.” There is constantly a sense of a more interesting film bubbling beneath the surface, waiting to get out, but never quite able to materalise beneath the trappings of its own particular brand of independent cinema.

Getting it all back to front.

The biggest problems with Horse Girl are tonal in nature. At least some of these issues are exacerbated by the decision to structure the film around a (relatively sharp) genre pivot in the middle of the second act. At its core, Horse Girl is the story of a young woman experiencing a psychotic break from reality. Baena and Brie very cleverly opt to frame the narrative in subjective terms, to look at the breakdown from Sarah’s perspective and to place the audience inside her mind as reality begins to fray.

This is a risky gambit, and both Baena and Brie deserve credit for attempting it. Horse Girl essentially begins in a realm quite close to the magical realism associated with a particular brand of American independent cinema, populated with the sort of imagery that isn’t too unusual in films like this; there is a horse walking through a shopping centre carpark, quirky behaviour from a young female lead, a sense of unarticulated trauma lurking beneath an outwardly positive exterior.

Plumbing the subconscious.

Baena consciously frames these beats in terms of the conventions of the “Sundance indie.” There’s a lot of emphasis on arts and crafts, and the importance of eccentric creativity. There is the obligatory “dance scene”, in which the lead character dances in a hilariously awkward fashion that the movie presents as eccentric. There’s the initially ambiguous set of familial relationships, which underscore that Sarah is the product of a family home with its own set of internal issues.

It’s notable, for example, that this fills roughly the same space on the Netflix release calendar as Unicorn Store did last year, right down the equine title. Both Unicorn Store and Horse Girl are festival-friendly quirky indies about female protagonists in mundane existences with a questionable grip on reality. Indeed, both Unicorn Store and Horse Girl feature considerably creative input from their lead actors – Brie Larson directed Unicorn Store and Alison Brie co-wrote Horse Girl. To its credit, Horse Girl is keenly aware of the milieu in which it sits, and plays with that.

Life is just a Brie-ze.

All of this is a very clever way to approach the film’s subject matter, albeit one that occasionally feels like an attempt to pathologise the markers of a certain type of American indie that has been an industry standard since the success of Little Miss Sunshine more than a decade earlier. The only problem is that this cleverness fails to compensate for the lack of genuine emotional engagement. It constantly feels like Horse Girl is celebrating its clever experimentation with genre, but never offering any insight to or development of Sarah.

This is a problem when the film takes a sharp turn around the midway point, when Horse Girl strips its subjective narrative of any ambiguity and briefly transforms into a more straightforward sort of psychological drama. The film can’t support that pivot in emotional terms, and so it feels quite cynical and hollow. Horse Girl tries to dramatically swap genres around the fifty-minute mark, but lacks the grounding to pull it off. Indeed, the film then slowly drifts back into magical whimsy as it powers ahead towards its climax.

Fractured mirror.

To be fair to Baena and Brie, both do good work with the material. Horse Girl is consistently visually impressive, particularly considering the budget on which it must have been operating. Its dream imagery is suitably vivid and surrealist, the film shrewdly avoiding any attempt at verisimilitude in order to underscore how fundamentally “wrong” this all is. Indeed, Baena and editor Ryan Brown do an excellent job conveying how disorienting the experience is to Sarah, using the language of cinematic editing to capture strange transitions and juxtapositions.

Brie does good work in the role of Sarah, offering an emotionally vulnerable lead performance that demands a lot from an actor. While Sarah often seems more like a concept than a character, there’s an engaging innocence and charm to Brie’s performance – especially in early scenes – that suggests a more vibrant and emotionally invested film than the finished version. So much of Horse Girl rests on Brie’s shoulders, and she carries the film as best she can.

Reiser-ing to the occasion.

There is perhaps something interesting in the way that Horse Girl frames Sarah’s visions and nightmares. Horse Girl is a film that seems oddly rooted in the paranoia and anxieties of the nineties rather than the present, shaped and informed by the kind of fears that The X-Files articulated so clearly – cloning, alien abduction, experimentation. While the script makes a few gestures towards the present – including a supernatural procedural called Purgatory, starring Matthew Gray Gubler from Criminal Minds and Robin Tunney from The Mentalist – it feels curiously outdated.

Horse Girl is a film that is attempting something bold and intriguing, but which never manages to deliver.

One Response

  1. Any nudity in this?

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