Alison Brie and Jeff Baena’s Horse Girl (written by both, directed by the latter) is mumblecore by way of Under the Skin, a comparison that oversells Horse Girl so hard I’m ashamed to have written it. The film follows Sarah (Brie), a thirtysomething trapped in arrested development who works at an arts and crafts store. She’s not mentally handicapped but she is in some way mentally ill with an undisclosed condition she may have inherited from her grandmother. Maybe.
Sarah is traumatized by her mother’s recent suicide, splitting her day between work, Zumba and visits to a horse she rode as a girl but can no longer legally ride. She’s also obsessed with a Supernatural-like show that she watches every night to the chagrin of her patient roommate. Oh, and Sarah has dreams of a blinding white room filled with her and other patients who are tended to by mysterious dark figures.
Soon she sees her dream-friends in real life. One of them happens to work next door. Marks show up on her body where the dark men touched her. She starts experiencing episodes of time displacement. Aliens? Cloning? It could be anything, but she’s going to figure it out.
Horse Girl wishes its supernatural elements were as interesting as Sarah’s everyday life, but unfortunately the story slowly disappears down a disorienting and disappointing attempt at ethereal symbolism that ruins what starts out as an empathetic depiction of a woman slowly losing her sanity. Brie is great. A subplot between her and an equally interesting fellow named Darren (John Reynolds) is mumblecore gold, even up to the forecasted rug-pull.
Which is the problem. In Under the Skin, a clear inspiration, the audience is made to feel unease at the world constructed around Scarlett Johansson’s man-eating alien. Unlike Skin, the moody music and cinematography that become prominent in Horse Girl as Sarah descends into madness (?) feel dissonant with the substance of the world around her, a world that does exist outside her skewed perspective. Her character’s quirks and troubles are defined in contrast to her coworker Joan (Molly Shannon) and her roommate, Nikki (Debby Ryan). The concrete reality is almost entirely left behind, and Sarah isn’t an interesting enough character on her own to carry the weight.
Perhaps that’s what Brie and Baena were going for. But by the concluding moments, Horse Girl just doesn’t feel worth it. What lessons are to be learned here? Is there commentary on whether we should believe women — take their issues seriously? I don’t think so. Are they trying to depict the loneliness of someone trapped within their own traumatic experiences? Maybe, but once the theatricality kicks in, the emotions become hollow. Sometimes ambiguity for ambiguity’s sake causes more harm than good.