Review: ‘Horse Girl,’ starring Alison Brie

February 7, 2020

by Carla Hay

Alison Brie in "Horse Girl"
Alison Brie in “Horse Girl” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Horse Girl”

Directed by Jeff Baena

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the sci-fi drama “Horse Girl” (which has almost nothing to do with horses) has a predominantly white cast of characters representing the middle class.

Culture Clash: When a seemingly normal woman tells people about why strange things are happening to her, they think she’s crazy. 

Culture Audience: “Horse Girl” will appeal primarily who audiences who prefer arthouse sci-fi films, but this movie can’t quite rise above its mediocrity and ultimately disappointing conclusion.

John Reynolds and Alison Brie in “Horse Girl” (Photo by Katrina Marcinowski)

Don’t be fooled by the title of the movie drama “Horse Girl,” because this isn’t a “National Velvet” type of story about a girl and her “best friend” horse who overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles to win a race. Nor is this a non-sports horse movie about someone with a special talent to communicate with horses, such as “The Horse Whisperer.” In fact, after seeing “Horse Girl,” you might wonder what the word “horse” was doing in the title in the first place. There’s a horse in this movie, but it’s not central to the plot, and the horse is in this 104-minute film for no more than 15 minutes.

So, what is “Horse Girl” about anyway? It’s about a shy, neurotic woman named Sarah (played by Alison Brie, who co-wrote the “Horse Girl” screenplay with director Jeff Baena) who believes she’s discovered something horrible about her life, but everyone around her thinks she’s crazy. When viewers first see Sarah, she’s living a routine and boring life that consists of her working as a sales associate at a local arts-and-crafts store and then coming home at night to watch TV. Her favorite show is a paranormal drama series called “Purgatory,” which features detectives investigating strange crimes that might or might not have to do with vampires and the occult.

She also spends time at a ranch where the people there don’t look too happy to see her. There’s a horse at the ranch named Willow that Sarah is overly attached to, for reasons that are explained later in the story. From the way that Sarah acts around the horse and the teenage girl who gets to ride Willow, it would be easy to assume Sarah is either the owner of the horse or a horse trainer. But things aren’t always what they seem to be with Sarah.

In the film’s opening scene—which almost looks like a parody of the  prissy characters that the Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph in “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar”—Sarah and her co-worker Joan (played by Molly Shannon) commiserate over finding out what their heritage is through DNA test kits. Joan raves about getting her DNA test results, as if it’s the most exciting thing to happen to her all year. She urges Sarah to do a DNA test too, and Sarah says that she’ll think about it. Later in the movie, Joan surprises Sarah by giving her a DNA test kit for Sarah’s birthday, and Sarah does the test.

Meanwhile, Sarah’s home life is fairly lonely, even though she has a roommate. Sarah’s pretty and confident roommate Nikki (played by Debby Ryan) is the kind of woman who gives off the aura of someone who was probably a queen-bee cheerleader in high school. Nikki and her boyfriend Brian (played by Jake Picking) spend a lot of time at each other’s place. When they’re over at Nikki and Sarah’s apartment, they rarely spend time with Sarah.

You can tell that Nikki feels sorry for Sarah when Nikki suggests that Brian’s roommate Darren Colt (played by John Reynolds) come over sometime so they could double date. Sarah is reluctant and doesn’t show further enthusiasm about the “double date” idea, until Darren actually comes over with Nikki and Brian. Sarah and Darren feel an instant attraction to each other. And the fact that Darren is the name of the male lead chatacter in “Purgatory” makes it even better for Sarah, who blurts out this information to Darren.

It’s the first clue that something is really “off” with Sarah, but Darren brushes it off and thinks that Sarah is just nervous and awkward. During this house-party get-together, all four loosen up with alcohol, while the guys smoke some marijuana too. Everyone gets very intoxicated, which leads to Darren and Sarah dancing with no inhibitions with each other. After Darren leaves, Sarah vomits in the toilet.

The next day, Darren shows up at the apartment unexpectedly because he forgot to ask Sarah for her phone number. She gives him her number, and they start dating. Sarah gets an occasional nosebleed, but she doesn’t think much about it.

Meanwhile, Sarah goes to a home of a young female friend around her age to visit with her. The woman has difficulty walking, and her speaking skills also sound physically challenged. Who is this mysterious friend?

In a flashback, we see that she used to be a horse-riding pal of Sarah’s until a horrible accident left her impaired. Sarah was riding Willow at the time of the accident. Although it’s never shown or fully explained in the movie, that traumatic incident had something to do with why Sarah no longer owns Willow, but she keeps showing up at the ranch of Willow’s new owners, who can barely tolerate Sarah, since she acts like she’s still responsible for taking care of Willow.

What does that horse have to do with some of the twists and turns in the rest of the story? It’s enough to say that Sarah’s nosebleeds and her habit of sleepwalking have more to do with the story than the horse. Sarah’s sleepwalking starts to become very unsettling when things start happening, such as her stepfather’s car, which he’s let her borrow, ends up being towed because it was found in the middle of a street with a door open and the keys still in the ignition. (Paul Reiser plays Sarah’s stepfather Gary in what is essentially a cameo role.)

Sarah has no memory of driving the car there, and before she found out where the car was, she reported the car stolen. Viewers find out that Sarah’s mother had a history of depression and committed suicide years earlier. Sarah’s maternal grandmother (who looks just like Sarah in photos that are shown) also had a history of mental illness. Did Sarah inherit any of their mental problems? She seems terrified of that possibility.

One thing’s for sure: Sarah has a recurring dream that she’s lying face up in a completely white, clinical-looking room. She’s in the middle of two other people, who are also lying face up, but they appear to be asleep. One is a middle-aged man and the other is a woman who’s around Sarah’s age. Before anything happens next in the dream, Sarah wakes up.

One day, Sarah is shocked to see the man from her dream show up randomly in real life, when she sees him from a distance while she’s at her job. She follows him outside, and sees from the van that he’s driving that he works for a company called Santiguez Plumbing. She goes to his place of work and finds out that his name is Ron (played by John Ortiz), but he doesn’t know who Sarah is when Sarah asks if they’ve ever met before.  He also says he has no memory of having a dream similar to hers.

More strange things keep happening to Sarah. There are long, horizontal scrape marks on her apartment wall that have appeared with no explanation. Sarah also wakes up with mysterious bruises on her body. By this point in the movie, Sarah has gone from a passive, soft-spoken person to almost manic and hysterical when she starts to put together a theory of what’s happening to her. It’s a theory that won’t be revealed in this review (even though it’s revealed in the movie’s trailer), but it takes the story in a direction that’s completely different from how the movie began.

It’s enough to say that Sarah has a very public meltdown, and she ends up getting psychiatric help. She’s assigned to a counselor named Ethan (played by Jay Duplass) who remains sympathetic but highly skeptical, as Sarah explains to him what she thinks is happening to her. (Hint: It involves a conspiracy.) The problem with “Horse Girl” is that even with the sci-fi elements that come into play with this story, where people have to suspend a certain amount of disbelief, there are so many plot holes for Sarah’s conspiracy theory that even if the theory were true, it would be almost impossible for Sarah not to find out about certain actions a lot sooner than she does.

“Horse Girl” director Baena and Brie previously worked together when she co-starred in the 2017 offbeat comedy “The Little Hours,” which was about horny Catholic nuns who act on their lusty desires. That movie gave viewers the anticipation of wondering what’s going to happen next. “Horse Girl” doesn’t have quite the same ability to keep viewers compelled, because of its nonsensical storyline. The first half of “Horse Girl starts off fairly intriguing, but the last half is a lot like a slogging through mud.

Horse fans, you’ve been given fair warning. This movie is definitely not about horses. If you want to watch a conspiracy-theory movie with sci-fi gimmicks that have been done much better in other films, then feel free to waste about 104 minutes of your time to watch “Horse Girl.”

Netflix premiered “Horse Girl” on February 7, 2020.