With every Marvel and DC property delaying their cinematic releases, we have to turn to Netflix for our next superhero outing with Horse Girl (2020). Surprisingly not about a girl bitten by a radio-active horse, Horse Girl is a harrowingly disturbing drama that may be science fiction, may be psychological fiction, but will definitely be an uncomfortable time.
Pictured: All the powers of a Horse
Co-written by director Jeff Baena and star Alison Brie, Horse Girl follows the story of that horse girl we all knew in high school; never one of the cool kids, kind of socially inept, but not one of the nerds. All that is really known is that she really likes her horse, and she might be a clone or something, who really knows?
Not me. Not me at all.
Unwrapping the story of Horse Girl in one sitting is definitely an unruly task. Remember back in high school when everyone was like, “Oh my, God! Donnie Darko (2001) is the most confusing movie ever!” And yeah, it is confusing on a thematic level, but it turns out everyone was just talking about the time travel aspect because everyone sucks? Yeah, I feel like this is going to be another one of those movies, but frankly, I understand the confusion behind the story of this one.
In its most simply put form, Sarah, (Alison Brie), is our titular horse girl who is a social outcast, likes arts and crafts, is obsessed with a supernatural procedural television show; she could be described in one word as “quirky”. Her roommate introduces her to a boy, there’s instant attraction because he’s also quirky and recently single and his first name happens to be the name of a character in that tv show, and now they’re gonna go on quirky dates together and it’s all so goddamn quirky.
And that would be the movie if it was made ten years ago. Zooey Deschanel is horse girl. Zach Braff is quirky boy, and also our main character. They scream out together in a graveyard and the movie ends with you knowing that their relationship won’t last three months after the credits roll.
But what if the manic pixie dream girl is actually a paranoid schizophrenic dream girl who can’t tell dreams from reality? And she is currently going through a mental breakdown and you, the viewer, has to go through it all with her? And he’s not as quirky as her because his quirks apparently stop at serious mental health issues, so he’s going to leave her abandoned in that graveyard? And she’s afraid that she might be a clone because she looks exactly like a picture of her grandmother? And her grandmother was also a paranoid schizophrenic? Not to mention that aliens are abducting her every now and then? And that horse isn’t even her horse anymore and the owners want her to stay away?
That is the horse girl of today.
So, if you haven’t got it by now, Horse Girl is all about mental illness.
What makes it stand out from the more objective look of Joker (2019)? Horse Girl tells the story exactly how Sarah experiences it. The line between imagination and reality are opened in photoshop, slapped with a Gaussian blur set to maximum. The director has spoken about the use of colour and how it emulates Sarah’s state of mind (blue-grey is more lucid, peach is less lucid), but even looking at the trailer you can see how often those colours pop up together in a scene. I feel like production designers Ashley and Megan Fenton were doing it just to mess with me.
What harms this blurred interpretation of the film however, is the fact that there are many things that are experienced by other characters that cannot be explained by mental illness. I, as a film person, viewed the film as being objectively sci-fi due to the many times that third-party characters give irrefutable proof of the goings-on. My wife, a psychology-trained person, viewed it as objectively only psych-fi, due to the very clear symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia, and the fact that she is clearly an unreliable narrator. To end the debate I decided to look up what the director thinks and apparently both of us can be right, depending on what you want to take from it.
...But you can never end a fight with your wife that way, so I guess my point is: it’s okay to have an ambiguous ending, but as a director you should have your answer, you just don’t have to divulge it. Don’t give me the half-arsed, “you can both be right, depending on how you look at it,” just give me a, “I won’t tell"...
...Or better yet, "yes, she's crazy, but the aliens are real and making it worse, so Charnstar is right".
I honestly feel like if there was a template of how a film should look if it wants to screen at Sundance, then that template is this film.
That’s not to say that it looks bad; it is beautiful. However, it’s a type of beauty I’ve mostly seen before: the pastel colour palette, the low contrast lighting. It’s nothing new.
Though my wife would say all of the abduction sequences are dream sequences, the one scene I will admit was a complete dream reminded me of a more reserved Terry Gilliam. Honestly, the entire ending felt like Brazil (1985) but on longer lenses.
That being said, the direction and the acting is where the film really shines. Jeff Baena is known for giving the actors an outline of the scene and motivation of the characters, and then letting them find the rest. Is that just being a lazy writer? Maybe. But it works, and it works well. When Sarah has her full breakdown and you see the cast members trying to work with it, you genuinely feel uncomfortable for everybody because I don’t doubt that they feel uncomfortable.
Pictured: Who knew the line, "I can hear the future," could be so terrifying?
Watching Horse Girl is one hell of a ride. For the sake of a pun, I would say a horse ride, but it’s more like that terrifying boat ride from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), except for 100 minutes instead of 2. It’s kind of funny at the start, but as the film keeps showing, there’s no earthly way of knowing, which direction it is going.
This sort of movie deserves a second watch, even if just to prove your wife wrong, but I feel like you need to know what you’re getting into before you start. Hell, I thought I knew what I was getting into, and it still side-swiped me.
If you're expecting to have a quick laugh at awkward love, or a superhero movie about a woman with all the powers of a horse, you might have to skip it. But if you like having long arguments with your loved ones about what is real and what isn’t, and then not having a director that backs either one of you so now you have to resent each other and you guess you’re sleeping on the couch tonight, then this is a fun time!