Horse Girl (directed by Jeff Baena) provides a deeply unsettling window into the delusions and paranoia of Sarah, a woman with a troubled family history whose deteriorating mental health is the driving force behind the narrative. A Netflix-distributed indie that may have been missed by many, Horse Girl will bore its way into your mind and leave you thinking long after you’ve seen it.
Alison Brie’s performance as Sarah was the stand-out aspect for me. Brie, who co-wrote the screenplay with Baena, gives a committed, raw and constantly evolving performance that is a departure from her more well-known roles. The side characters also serve to weave the web enclosing Sarah, with her relationship with Darren providing the main catalyst for her delusions. Their various reactions to her behaviour are largely unhelpful, further isolating Sarah with her delusions.
The use of special effects and editing pulls the viewer into Sarah’s mind, providing the same level of confusion and disorientation that she is feeling. We are active participants in, rather than spectators of, her delusions. This also makes the audience question the reality of the film, with extended, surreal sequences that disorientate us, throwing us headfirst into Sarah’s world. These reality-breaking moments enhance the unease, creating a bizarre, disturbing world that puts the audience on edge, not knowing what to believe or expect.
Horse Girl also has a strange, surreal beauty, with long takes and unconventional angles that provide a stark contrast to the hectic, unpredictable world that Sarah inhabits. Lighting is used very effectively, with both plunging shadows and harsh artificial light being used to reflect Sarah’s mental state. Her repeated dream takes place in a world of light and there are many scenes in near total darkness, both heightening the feelings of disorientation and paranoia.
The film gives an honest, and effectively stylised, portrayal of someone suffering with mental health, showing how events and circumstances that are completely out of a person’s control can lead to suffering. It explores hereditary mental health conditions and the fear and paranoia that can accompany them and highlights the stigma and misunderstanding surrounding mental health, with few characters being able to properly help Sarah. I would have liked to have seen a deeper exploration of this, addressing Sarah’s condition more personally. However, I can forgive this as the introspective approach allowed the audience to experience Sarah’s delusions, which is arguably more effective than an external inspection of her condition.
Overall, Horse Girl will leave you questioning what you just saw and may stay with you for a long time. The raw portrayal of someone suffering with mental health is emotional and unsettling but provides a unique perspective into the schizophrenic experience. It is a refreshing take on mental health, exposing the dark and terrifying reality experienced by thousands of people every day. It is certainly not a horror film but may be disturbing for some. 3.5 Stars.