There’s something about Sarah.
Something a little … off.
She’s a smart, sensitive, polite, considerate young woman, but she’s also socially awkward, to the point where she often makes those around her uncomfortable.
Also, she has a strange attachment to a horse named Willow, and she’s been experiencing some frighteningly realistic “lucid dreams,” not to mention the nosebleeds and the memory lapses ...
Let’s just say Sarah is not in a good place.
The versatile and wonderful chameleon of an actor Alison Brie (“Mad Men,” “Community,” “GLOW”) is the star and co-writer of “Horse Girl,” and she delivers some of her finest work as the complex and fragile and increasingly delusional Sarah, whose tenuous grasp on reality is in danger of slipping away altogether.
In the first act of “Horse Girl,” director and co-writer Jeff Baena introduces us to Sarah in a series of understated, deceptively simple, indie-film style vignettes, as if we’re in for a low-key, character-driven comedy.
Sarah has a job in a crafts and fabric store, where she has a comfortable, workplace friendship with a co-worker named Joan (Molly Shannon, doing fine work), who has a maternal fondness for Sarah.
She attends Zumba classes, and spends a lot of time at a stable tending to the aforementioned Willow the horse. She’s addicted to a lurid, supernatural crime show called “Purgatory.” (Robin Tunney and Matthew Gray Gubler are terrific in the show-within-the movie.)
Her gregarious roommate Nikki (Debby Ryan) might not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but she seems genuine in her efforts to add some much-needed fun to Sarah’s life.
It’s a grounded, deadpan portrait of a sad and lonely woman, punctuated by some genuinely funny moments, e.g., when Nikki’s aspiring hip-hop artist boyfriend plays cuts from his 12-track concept album, “A Baker’s Dozen,” and doesn’t understand why people would expect 13 songs.
These scenes are rendered in realistic fashion, and there’s no overt indication Sarah is troubled — yet there’s some unsettling foreshadowing in certain scenes, as when the couple that owns the stable is obviously uncomfortable with Sarah constantly showing up to fuss over Willow, but indulges her out of a sense of compassion over some past trauma.
Still, it’s a bit jarring when “Horse Girl” abruptly switches gears and goes dark as we learn about the history of mental health issues in Sarah’s family, and Sarah begins to experience serious difficulties in differentiating between reality and her bizarre, time-tripping, alien-abduction dreams — which seem absolutely real to her.
Sarah becomes convinced she’s a clone of her grandmother, and/or a time traveler. She’s certain the owner of a local plumbing business (John Ortiz) is the same man she sees in a blindingly bright, all-white room in her dreams. She immerses herself in conspiracy theories.
In the home stretch, “Horse Girl” takes an ambitious, deep-dive, trippy plunge to convey Sarah’s heartbreaking downward spiral. Some of the visual touches come across as a little self-conscious and borderline hokey, but given the modest budget, director Baena and the production team do an admirable job of showing us the world as Sarah has come to see it.
“Horse Girl” is surreal and abstract — but the story was inspired by Alison Brie’s family’s very real history of mental health issues, including her grandmother’s paranoid schizophrenia and Brie’s own experiences and struggles with depression.
Brie’s performance is open and honest and disturbing and funny and lovely and resonant. The work is so good and so convincing that even when Sarah is spouting the craziest of her mad theories, there’s a small part of us that wonders if Sarah’s truth is the real truth.
We certainly believe SHE believes.