- PHONE HOME Brie plays a lonely young woman who progresses from adrift to unhinged in Baena’s uneven dark comedy.
There's nothing like a pandemic to remind you to check out the original content on all those streaming services you pay for. This week I watched Horse Girl, a little Netflix flick (released last month) from prominent indie producers Jay and Mark Duplass, cowriter/director Jeff Baena (Life After Beth) and cowriter/star Alison Brie. Brie is a geek-culture favorite for her roles on "Community," "Mad Men" and "GLOW."
The experience of watching this film isn't as discombobulating as our current news cycle (what could be?), but it sometimes comes close. What at first seems to be an irritatingly familiar twee indie movie gradually transforms into a critique of those movies — maybe? — and then into something completely different, though not always less irritating. By the end, viewers have whiplash and a distinct sensation that the script needed several more drafts, but they aren't bored.
Brie plays Sarah, a young woman who works at a crafts store and initially comes off as sweetly earnest and a little ditzy. Visually, her world is full of bright blue skies and fabric swatches to match. As she chats with coworkers, visits her beloved childhood horse and meets a nerdy-cute guy (John Reynolds), the score (by Josiah Steinbrick and Jeremy Zuckerman) does its best to convince us that she lives in Mister Rogers' neighborhood.
Then, scene by scene, dark tones sneak into the pastel picture. Sarah is a sleepwalker. Mysterious claw marks appear in her apartment. Her equine fixation isn't a sign of arrested development; it's one of her last remaining links to her family and past. Soon Sarah is dreaming about alien abduction, and her obsession with a paranormal TV show seems less like a cheap joke at her expense and more like a symptom of something very wrong.
In short, what started as a cutesy cringe comedy veers deep into Todd Solondz territory. Quirky becomes creepy, and things don't stop there. Other movies have explored the possibility that the "manic pixie dreamgirls" beloved of rom-coms might actually be mentally ill and in need of treatment. Horse Girl goes down that road, but it's only a byway on the way to something weirder — and, at times, downright self-indulgent.
Brie is an actor who can turn on a dime from gauzy and girlish to dead serious; her voice acting on the last season of "BoJack Horseman" drew a powerful portrait of depression. When Sarah stops braiding lanyards and starts accusing her friends of participating in worldwide conspiracies, her transformation is believable.
The problem is that we want to back slowly away from her. Until its very last scenes, Horse Girl doesn't bring us into Sarah's head in a way that might make us genuinely question what we're seeing. The satirical tone is so well established — Sarah's beloved cheesy TV show is obviously based on "Supernatural" — that the film isn't credible when it abruptly asks: Could she be right?
Baena and Brie may well have set out to make a modern-day exploration of "hysteria," a Donnie Darko-type oddity that explores all the ways women minimize themselves until their feelings explode in bursts of seeming madness. They didn't get there.
Some girls reminisce about horses. I reminisce about the moment the lights went down in a Manhattan art house and I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time. As I write this, notices of closure are coming in from movie theaters around the state. Please support yours in any way you can — so when it's safe to gather again, they'll still be there.