Horse Girl (Jeff Baena, 2020) – Full Original – Melodrama/Psychodrama
Sarah (Alison Brie) leads a seemingly simple life in suburban America, working in a fabric store and splitting her spare time between visiting a horse stable and bingeing on supernatural detective dramas. Her life begins to unravel, however, when a co-worker (played by Molly Shannon) buys her a home DNA test to find about her ancestry. Around the time she starts dating a man her roommate introduces her to. Disturbed by the thought that she might have inherited her grandmother’s mental health problems and reeling from a recent tragedy involving her own mother, Sarah starts to lose her own grip on reality.
There can be little doubt that Horse Girl is a star vehicle for Alison Brie, who is a relatively important star within the Netflix constellation. In case you don’t already know, Brie is the star of GLOW and an alumna of Mad Men, one of the most popular licensed dramas on Netflix. Not only does she star in this movie, but she also co-wrote its screenplay and also acted as producer on the film. Horse Girl is thus intended as something of a showcase of Brie’s talents and as such as it works, even if the film is on the whole disappointing.
Put crudely, the only good thing about Horse Girl is that we get to see a wide range of Brie’s acting talents. Though I haven’t watched GLOW (yet), I am a big fan of Trudy Campbell as well as Community, so I genuinely wanted to see her show off as the main star here. And she rises to the challenge, showing a full commitment to the character and convincingly inhabiting Sarah’s damaged psyche in a way that genuinely reveals further depths to her talent. Her transitions from vulnerable to manic are particularly spot on, being consistently and simultaneously sad and scary. We can thus share the frightened and sympathetic reactions of the various characters that come in contact with her throughout the film.
As good as she is as an actor, Brie’s talents as a screenwriter and producer are less impressive, though at least in this case the blame can be shared with director and co-writer/producer Jeff Baena. The film’s screenplay may have been going for a scattered effect that mirrored the mindset of its protagonist but it only manages to get the nonsensical part right. Unlike other famous depictions of madness in the cinema (e.g. Dr. Caligari or A Page of Madness), the script never connects the dots in a way that gives the spectator something to measure the mania against. So we are just awash in Sarah’s point-of-view and while this seems like an interesting idea in principle, it gets tedious in practice.
Tedious is the key word here, and not just because the film gets very repetitive during the last 30 minutes or so. From a stylistic point-of-view, madness on screen should at least be memorably bold, but Baena somehow cannot find a way to make it interesting in terms of sound or image. Instead, when it they aren’t dull, the madness scenes become silly in a bad film student sort of way. Stronger direction and/or perhaps a stronger hand from the producers (where were you on this Jay and Mark Duplass?) was needed if they wanted to make the film as a whole as strong and memorable as Brie’s central performance.
Horse Girl was the first fiction film from Sundance 2020 that Netflix has released so far, you can read up on the whole slate here.
As mentioned above, Alison Brie also stars in two important Netflix series. One of these is the original series GLOW and the other is Mad Men, which has long been available on Netflix as a licensed title.
Producers Jay and Mark Duplass have a longstanding relationship with Netflix. They produced Puffy Chair, which was the first ever film to be exclusively distributed by the company, though that was done during the days of the DVD by mail service. Since Netflix became a streaming company that finances original production, the Duplass Brothers have had two long-term deals with Netflix. One of these was for home video rights to films that were first released in theaters. This deal produced films such as Duck Butter, Creep and the masterpiece Tangerine among others. The second deal was for films that are available exclusively as Netflix originals. This deal has so far produced Paddleton as well as Horse Girl.
The Duplass Brothers also produced the Netflix original series Wild Wild Country.
Small Cast/Pointless Cameos
Brie is the only actor who features prominently in the film. Molly Shannon is the closest besides her to being a full-fledged character but in total only appears in a handful of scenes. Paul Reiser’s, Jay Duplass’s and Matthew Gray Gubler’s parts in the movie barely rise to the level of cameos.
A realistic, sincere portrayal of mental health is a rare thing and one that seldom results in a highly commercial movie. This was thus a film that from Netflix’s point-of-view represents a well-intentioned risk.