Last year Netflix unleashed a movie starring Brie Larson called Unicorn Store and it was a 90-minute mistake. When the streaming service announced it was showcasing its upcoming release Horse Girl starring the similarly-named-but-they-are-admittedly-nothing-alike Alison Brie at this year's Sundance Film Festival, it was at the bottom of my list of things I was excited to see. After watching it, I was reminded of a very valuable lesson: Never judge a book or a streaming platform's next big title by its cover; Horse Girl is absolutely terrific.
The movie, which Brie co-wrote with director Jeff Baena, leads you off thinking this is another quirky comedy like those that became Sundance's imprimatur in the late 1990s and early aughts. Sarah (Brie) is a cute and awkward gal, working at a crafts store, spending quiet nights alone watching a Supernatural-esque show, and hanging out at a stable to watch a horse she had, at one time, an attachment to, but why the connection has been severed is a little vague.
Sarah is sweet and lovable, but she's clearly a black hole of self-confidence. You instantly want her to be happy. She struggles through simple interactions with her co-workers, her roommate, and her stepfather. Eventually (maybe when the movie begins to "trust us"), we learn what's actually going on: She's being abducted by aliens and used for time-shifting experiments.
Which is to say Sarah, whose mother and grandmother both had severe mental health issues, believes this to be what's happening. But in a brilliant turn the movie is told from her point of view, so it is something of an objective truth. (The reverse of this would be, say, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, in which the film points to Richard Dreyfuss to say "this guy's nuts!")
Sarah's delusions, as they so tragically are in real life, are inexplicable to outsiders, and seem hazy even to herself. "I know it sounds crazy," she says to a doctor (she's been getting nose bleeds), but she knows that she's being used as a "human thermometer" and has probably been cloned. We witness her terrifying dreams set in a white void, then characters from those dreams begin appearing in real life. (It is probably the case that she saw the plumber out of the corner of her eye one day at work, not that he manifested from an inter-dimensional realm.)
Horse Girl manages to do a number of remarkable and difficult things. For starters, it is a blend of genres. It is frightening, sad, and also very funny. So many filmmakers not named Joel and Ethan Coen try to mix up distinct storytelling styles and invariably fail. Baena does not.
Then there's Brie's performance. She is enormously charismatic, and watching this film is a real workout on your emotions. It is (in a very strange way) entertaining to watch her flip out and ruin a first date by babbling about clones, but you sit there in the audience and just want to help. (In recent interviews, Brie stated, for the first time, that she and members of her family have had mental health issues; the drama in Horse Girl comes from a very real place.)
Also, for a low-budget movie, this is also something of a triumph for design. As I say, it does begin in something of the "twee" universe of indie movies. It's set at a crafts store, for heaven's sake, so there are handmade lanyards and nu-dowdy clothes. When Sarah begins losing ground to her hallucinations, elements from the shop are incorporated in her hypnagogic adventures. By some miracle, scenes involving a catsuit made out of rubber shower curtain materials manage to be both thrilling and erotic.
A lesser duo than Baena and Brie would be unable to pull this off. I suspect that Brie's closeness to the material is the magic bullet here, as she knows just exactly how far to push the comedy without disrupting the tragedy, and vice versa. It is only January, but I think this will end up being one of the best leading performances of the year.
TV Guide Rating: 5/5
Horse Girl is now streaming on Netflix.