The title alone should have been enough of a warning sign to keep me away from Horse Girl. However, while engaged in conversation with a good friend of mine, the film came up. I pulled up the trailer, convinced it was going to be another Netflix excuse for a comedy along the lines of The Kissing Booth. The looks on our faces once this trailer ended, however, must have been one for the history books.
Horse Girl is the latest from Duplass Brothers Productions, a company responsible for a diverse array of independent films in the last few years. From Creep to Paddleton, the Duplass Brothers certainly know what their taste is, and have a knack for bringing similar visions from other filmmakers to the screen. In this case, we have Jeff Baena, director of the similarly quirky Life After Beth. Co-written with star Alison Brie, the film follows Brie as a lonely and offbeat woman who begins to suspect that her life may be bigger than she thinks it is.
Despite the trailer giving away the feeling that this would be a 105-minute episode of The Twilight Zone, it takes a little while to get there. The first twenty-five minutes or so are pure mumblecore greatness to sit back and laugh along with, featuring arguments about how much a baker’s dozen is, a cringey concept album from a white rapper, and all of it shot and performed in a welcoming and naturalistic fashion. This feeling of indie warmth is quickly taken out of the equation once the bizarreness begins to unfold, which makes it feel like a more conventional film than it should be.
Alison Brie is the highlight of the film, able to balance a relatable awkwardness with a completely bonkers mental state in the second half. You want to see her figure out whatever is happening to her, despite her character not being the most intelligent or composed. Debby Ryan is second-billed despite not being in the film all that much, likely to lure in people my age who watched too much of the Disney channel. It’s really Brie’s show as there’s rarely a second without her on screen.
Even though the indie sensibilities quickly dissipate, I still found Horse Girl fairly engaging as the plot unfolded. We follow Brie’s character through the rest of the film as she tries to solve a mystery involving strange dreams, clones, alien abductions, and pipes. It has its ups and downs as the story rolls along, but Brie’s performance keeps you engaged, even if it shifts from quirky naturalism to a standard off kilter demeanor, much like the rest of the film.
Horse Girl is trying very hard to be one film in particular, and I kept thinking of it as it became more and more bizarre. There’s a lot of emulation of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me here. A story driven solely around the protagonist, a twenty minute opening chunk that doesn’t have much to do with the rest of the story, surreal bits that don’t make much sense – all it’s missing is a scene with David Bowie overlayed with a dancing man in a mask. It even has an odd yet eccentric score, somewhere between Under the Skin and Annihilation in terms of whirring hums and loud synth chords.
I often find myself going back and forth on the purpose of Netflix. Three years ago it felt like “dumped on Netflix” was the next “direct to video,” but now Netflix originals like The Irishman and Marriage Story have become objects of prestige. Accessibility of films is a huge concern for me personally, and the idea that great films that should appeal to all who love the medium could be accessible to anyone who can pay a few bucks a month is incredible in a world where films are not always easy to find. So there’s a very important reason that Netflix exists, but there is also a reason for studios to put their films on Netflix in the first place: calculated risk. Movies like Horse Girl do not make it to theaters in 2019, not even indie arthouse theaters. This calculated risk is good for studios, and also good for film buffs who want to see films like this when they come out. Before Roma I would have told you that Netflix wasn’t worth it, but now it’s such a worthy investment that studios would rather turn to it than risk failing in theaters.
With all of that said, however, Horse Girl is no Roma. It’s a lot less than the sum of its parts, with a plot that meanders to a weak ending that doesn’t offer much in terms of character or themes. It does have a good performance at its center, and the concept is fascinating, but it could have used a little more focus.