'Horse Girl' Hides Mental Health Trauma with Quirky Indie Vibe Directed by Jeff Baena
Starring Alison Brie, Molly Shannon, Debby Ryan
Published Feb 10, 2020Despite what the synopsis offered on Netflix, and even its indie aesthetic, might have you believe, Horse Girl is not a hopeful film.
Horse Girl stars and was co-written by Alison Brie, and was directed by Jeff Baena; Brie plays Sarah, who is shy and awkward, works at a craft store (Molly Shannon is wonderful as Sarah's co-worker, Joan), hasn't had the best time dating, dresses as though she exclusively shops at thrift stores, and has fairy lights in the apartment she shares with her roommate Nikki (Debby Ryan). These elements denote a quirky indie flick, but things are not as they seem.
Sarah's mother died of suicide a year ago and she obsessively watches a Supernatural-like show to cope with the loss. She also has a horse, Willow, whom she loves no end but does not own, and a childhood friend who had a terrible accident horse riding and was cerebrally injured. Her only other family is two generations of mentally-ill women, both of whom are dead.
The film follows Sarah as her mental state deteriorates. Her grandmother was similarly afflicted by mental illness, and it is likely that Sarah's case is hereditary. Without answers in the real world, Sarah's mind supplies conspiracy theories to make sense of the way she is feeling and what she is seeing. She has strange dreams about alien abduction, loses time, recognizes unfamiliar faces and forgets familiar ones.
In addition to being about Sarah, though, the film is also about a system that is failing, and Sarah is cognizant of this. Reagan closed down the hospitals, Sarah says to her doctor (Jay Duplass) at a public mental health facility, talking about U.S. President Ronald Reagan's repeal of the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980, which funded community mental health support systems. Her ill grandmother was put on the streets because of this — she died homeless.
The film's realism speaks to how common mental illness is, but how we look away when things get too difficult or ugly. No one bats an eye as Sarah walks Willow across a golf course. Sarah thinks she's experiencing otherworldly things, but the mundane world surrounding her does not know how to deal with her, or wants to easily make her happy so that things will go to a normalcy that's familiar. Her stepfather (Paul Reiser) throws money at her to fix the problem, her roommate doesn't have time to deal with it, and when she does, she gets angry from confusion.
After an episode at the store, Joan tells Sarah that a bad thought can be replaced by a good one — an aphorism she might've gleaned off a social media site. This advice, though it's coming from a good place — Joan loves her in the removed way that a work friend can love you — is incomprehensible to Sarah. It's not something that abides in her mind's reality. The kind of nimble mental exercise that Joan wants Sarah to perform is difficult through mental illness, through the anxiety and paranoia that Sarah feels. Oftentimes, thinking through depression can feel like doing a math problem with a tar-sodden sponge in place of a brain. "It just feels really real to me," Sarah says at one point about her experiences.
This is why the aesthetic treatment works so well in telling Sarah's story. The sunniness, Sarah's wardrobe, her "shy and awkward" demeanour, the despondency of everyone else, how much of a douchebag Sarah's roommate's boyfriend is — they're all the trappings of a quirky indie rom-com. But in Horse Girl, they set your teeth on edge.
The elements of the genre we expected don't work, and this is what first alerts us to the seriousness of Sarah's condition. She needs help, but no one is helping her. No one is looking, no one is paying attention because they don't want to get involved, much in the way that the vagrant who rummages through the trash outside of the store screaming about Satico Satellite is ignored. Horse Girl works because it plays against its aesthetic.
It's a difficult movie to watch because you might see yourself in certain of the characters, wanting to help but unsure as to how.