At the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, the streaming superpower Netflix purchased an artistic, off-beat approach to drama in “Horse Girl,'' directed by Jeff Baena and co-written with Alison Brie. This film missed the mark severely. The plot follows what can be presumed as a socially awkward young woman left to fend for herself after enduring a life of trauma, but loses its originality halfway through its runtime after intersecting the genres of drama and sci-fi. While the concept is fresh and stands out from Netflix’s previous distribution catalogue, the substance is overshadowed by the cast and consistently takes itself too seriously.
Throughout “Horse Girl,” the protagonist, Sarah, played by Alison Brie, flip-flops between socially unaware and almost scatterbrained to knowledgeable. However, Brie's performance reads as innocent, since it is difficult to imagine anyone other than herself playing such a strange, misunderstood character. Most of the supporting cast in “Horse Girl” is recycled from Netflix series or films, playing characters opposite their typecast. Debby Ryan plays an unlikable roommate who attempts to sympathize Brie’s character but never fully commits to understanding her. Molly Shannon is a sympathetic craft store employee who genuinely cares. John Paul Reynolds is the cute and quirky love interest.
While this is an attempt to break stereotypes surrounding these actors, it boasts no breakthrough performances other than Brie’s. Sarah is tragic and unsettling because she is almost independent but remains child-like. The trauma Sarah faced in her life is revealed slowly, but piece by piece, the audience understands why Sarah is so strange.
“Horse Girl” fits somewhere between highlighting the importance of acknowledging mental illness and worshiping the supernatural since Sarah shows signs of schizophrenia. Although she is never formally diagnosed, she raves about clones, aliens and time travel. Sarah has a strange attachment to a horse she rode in her childhood. This obsession is never explicitly explained but can only be presumed to be a security figure in her life. Overall, the plot is convoluted, and plot points are never fully developed to grant a deeper understanding. It did not help that the Netflix distribution team marketed the film as an off-beat drama. Baena is unsure of where he wants to go next and resonates as surface level.
A decent attempt by Baena at an odd and unparalleled film, “Horse Girl” left the wrong devices to the imagination and most questions unanswered. Some unique elements that should be highlighted are the risks taken in the third act. While the ending leaves gaps to be filled by the viewer’s imagination, it is the most concrete aspect of the movie because the ending is sure of itself and, besides Brie’s performance, is the only saving grace of “Horse Girl.”
Possibly worth a second watch to gather a better perspective, but certainly not a film topping any lists this year, “Horse Girl” is a nice offering from Netflix. While not spectacular, it is a decent departure and a hopeful new beginning for storytellers.