The Sundance film Horse Girl has landed a wide release on Netflix. Directed by Jeff Baena and co-written by him and its star Alison Brie, it’s the story of a socially awkward woman who’s life begins to fall down around her. From its tone to the surreal visual style this film does a good job of giving the audience a first hand view of mental illness, and the sheer terror of a mental breakdown.
Sarah (Alison Brie) is a shy and stunted adult version of the archetypal “horse girl” who’s sheltered life is criticized by her roommate Nikki (Debby Ryan). Sarah’s days blend together as she works at a craft store, visits her old horse Willow, stops by the grave of her dead mother, and watches her favorite supernatural crime procedural “Purgatory.” Occasionally she heads to a zumba class in an attempt to make friends. She also visits her childhood friend Heather (Meredith Hagner) who’s traumatic brain injury from horseback riding has left her in a permanently adolescent state. This routine repeats ad nauseam until Sarah starts experiencing bizarrely realistic lucid dreams. The morning after being set up with Nikki’s boyfriend’s roommate Darren (John Reynolds) Nikki finds Sarah asleep in the living room with large scratches on the wall. Sarah’s lucid dreams have combined with sleep walking.
Sarah’s sanity starts to weaken as she recognizes a man from her recurring dreams in real life. Slowly she starts piecing together what she views as evidence of her being controlled by aliens. She starts experiencing glitches in time, as well as more frequent memory loss. Waking up to find her car stolen, it’s later shown to have been abandoned by Sarah in the middle of the night. She tracks the man from her dreams to a plumbing store and is desperate to get more information from him. After examining pictures of her grandmother she fears she is a clone, and shares these fears while on a date with Darren. Believing him to be divinely sent for her she takes Darren on a drive to the graveyard where she intends to dig up her mother and test her DNA. When he tries to stop her she lunges at him with scissors until he relents and drives off. Sarah’s worrisome behavior escalates as she finds herself naked in the craft store with no memory of how she got there. She’s then briefly committed to a psychiatric ward where again she experiences time jumps and a series of visual hallucinations.
Where Horse Girl really shines as a film is its commanding use of recurring visual themes and in Alison Brie’s heart wrenching performance. Her steadfast confidence as she works to solve the riddles of her lucid dreams mixes well with her vulnerability during moments of chilling confusion. This film is reminiscent of Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar in that it perfectly places the viewer in the mind of someone experiencing a mental breakdown. There is a constant state of looming dread as the audience struggles to discern the real from the unreal. There is divided opinion among viewers as to whether or these dream sequences really are the work of an evil cloning corporation or if Sarah is just slowly falling victim to her own hallucinations. This ambiguity was a smart move on the filmmaker’s part, because it really works to sell the terror of Sarah’s experience.
Color is used throughout to differentiate between Sarah’s waking life versus her dream state. The daytimes are doused in a dampened grey/blue while the dream world has pops of peach, a “safe” color introduced to her by a psychic healer in the craft store, that starts to appear more and more as Sarah loses touch with reality. She uses the color as a shield to protect herself, becoming a motif for her manic state. Other visual tells that are employed include the ever increasing scratches (on the wall, on the roof of her car, etc) and the dizzying affect of taking a shower. Anytime she enters or is near a running shower Sarah loses times, a detail that is heartbreakingly explained later in the film. The most captivating sequence is when Sarah is committed to the hospital and she enters her most elaborate lucid dream yet. Wrapping herself up in a peach colored ninja suit Sarah takes to the streets of her dream world. At no point during this is there a break to show the audience whats really happening, so we’re forced to go along with Sarah looking for clues. After she leaves the hospital the story ends on another ambiguous note that perfectly captures the surreal nature of this film.