With TV successes like Community, and the more recent Glow, under her belt, Alison Brie has built a reputation for herself in comedy. Had Promising Young Woman arrived as scheduled, we might have seen a different side to her sooner rather than later. If her latest offering for Netflix anything to go by, that’s something to look forward to, because Horse Girl shows the extent to which her range encompasses more serious roles, something that’s until now been overlooked.
Originally shown at this year’s Sundance, this is clearly a personal project for her. Brie co-wrote the script alongside director Jeff Baena, drawing on her own family history, although the film is not based on a true story. She plays Sarah, who works in a craft shop and, although clearly a kind person, has problems relating to other people. That social awkwardness means that she has no friends to speak of: she’s close to one of her colleagues at work and she has a flat mate, but that’s more or less the sum total of her social circle. Becoming fixated on a supernatural TV show and her late grandmother, she starts to have strange dreams so the dividing line between them and reality becomes increasingly blurred.
What starts out looking like an indie comedy about social awkwardness, one with gentle, sympathetic humour, soon takes another direction, becoming a look at mental illness and its impact. It’s a change in tone that jars and feels forced so that, although Horse Girl clearly wants to be taken seriously, it’s unable to make up for the time lost in that initial phase and its examination of mental illness doesn’t have the depth it needs. Add to that a narrative with a tendency to wander, and the result is a frustrating and, at times, mildly disappointing movie.
Yet, on the plus side – and it’s a significant plus – is Brie herself, in a standout turn. She has all the appealing awkwardness to make us warm to her in the early stages of the film, so that our sympathies intensify as she starts to lose her grip. This is no one note performance, making good use of her fragile appearance – that tiny frame and those large, expressive eyes – and adds up to a compassionate portrait. She and Molly Shannon, who plays Joan, her co-worker and mother figure, make a touching double act: long-time colleagues and good friends, the two have a natural chemistry, with the older woman trying her best to understand what Sarah is going through. She’s also an interesting contrast to Sarah’s flat mate Nikki (Debby Ryan) who, for the most of the time, is perplexed and downright annoyed by Sarah’s behaviour.
Despite its shortcomings, Horse Girl doesn’t lay things out on a plate: rather, it’s something of a jigsaw puzzle, with the audience piecing together Sarah’s story and deciding what’s true and what isn’t (she claims to have friends at her Zumba class, but her attempts at interaction all fail, leaving her floundering). Once all the pieces fit – and they do, after a fashion – you have a clearer picture of why she’s struggling so much. And, while the ending isn’t completely satisfactory, as a whole the film is a worthy opportunity for Brie to spread her dramatic wings. One that she grasps eagerly, with impressive results.
Drama | Cert: 15 | Netflix Original | 7 February 2020 | Dir. Jeff Baena | Alison Brie, Molly Shannon, John Ortiz, Debby Ryan.