❉ Nick Clement on Alison Brie’s oddball endeavour, now streaming on Netflix.
The bizarre Netflix Original film Horse Girl, from the tonally-daring and underappreciated filmmaker Jeff Baena (co-writer of the brilliant I Heart Huckabees, and writer/director of the gorily amusing Life After Beth, Joshy, and the caustically perverted The Little Hours), features a wowser of a performance from Alison Brie (who co-wrote the script with Baena), and feels like a movie that was made so that it could become an immediate cult item. And honestly, the less you know about this film’s quirky particulars, the better the viewing experience will likely be; it also helps that nothing is truly concrete within the narrative, and that the main character is prone to episodes that aren’t fully explainable.
The twisty and purposefully sketchy plot concocted by Baena and Brie involves a young woman who starts to lose her grip on reality, to say nothing of her own sanity, when she starts to have strange occurrences like sleep-walking in weird spots, waking up outside of her house, nose bleeds, missing time episodes, and other random bits that are pointing in the direction of, well, I’ll leave that for you to decide once you see all of the strange happenings. What keeps Horse Girl fully compelling is Brie’s magnetic grip on the screen, as she helps to create and define a role that could become one of her signature efforts; over the years, and especially since her break-out work on the television series Mad Men, she’s racked up some strong credits and I can’t wait to see what she does next.
Molly Shannon, John Ortiz, Paul Reiser, Debby Ryan, and John Reynolds round out the strong supporting cast, but this is Brie’s show all the way, and she dominates the entire piece from curious start to trippy finish, bugging her eyes, letting the sweat flow, and going all-out in more ways than one. Also, big-time credit must be paid to composers Josiah Steinbrick and Jeremy Zuckerman, who took a page out of the Jon Brion/Punch-Drunk Love playbook, and delivered an aggressively percussive musical score that underlines the heightened mental instability of Brie’s character, to say nothing of ramping up the anxiety levels. Sean McElwee’s casually stylish camerawork is low-key effective in its ability to induce visual tension in key moments, and the final beats will definitely leave the viewer with lots to ponder.
It’s no surprise that this oddball endeavor bears the producing stamp of the Duplass brothers, as both Jay (who appears in a supporting role) and Mark have consistently thrown down for any number of high-wire cinematic acts in the past, including Safety Not Guaranteed, Cyrus, The One I Love, The Skeleton Twins, Blue Jay, Outside In, and so many others. They excel at putting together strong scripts with scrappy talent in front of and behind the camera, and they’ve created their own stable of performers and collaborators over the years, resulting in a cinematic cannon of indie-flavored films that will likely be studied years from now. Horse Girl fits snugly into their hermetically sealed milieu, and Baena’s voice as a storyteller is perfectly aligned with how the Duplass brothers do their business. Horse Girl is currently streaming on Netflix, and is just waiting to find a beamed-up audience looking for something offbeat.
❉ ‘Horse Girl’ (2020) Starring: Alison Brie, Debby Ryan, Paul Reiser. Cert. 15. Run time: 1h 44. Watch now on Netflix.
❉ Nick Clement is a journalist for Variety Magazine and motion picture screenplay consultant, as well as a critic for websites We Are Cult and Back to the Movies. He wrote the introduction to the book Double Features: Big Ideas in Film, which was published by The Great Books Foundation, and is currently working on a book about the life and work of filmmaker Tony Scott. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and son.