Do you know that romantic-comedy cliché in which the mousy young woman whips off her glasses — and suddenly the brainiac “ugly duckling” blossoms into a beautiful swan that turns heads and gets the guy? That’s not what happens to the title character of Horse Girl, though for the first 15 minutes or so of Jeff Baena’s movie, you assume some variation of this is lurking just around the corner. Our heroine, Sarah (Alison Brie), is single, sweet but slightly socially awkward, and works at an arts & crafts store. In her off hours, she hangs out at a stable watching horse-riding lessons and nerds out to a sci-fi-meets-CSI show called Purgatory (imagine an off-brand Buffy meets Bones). She doesn’t wear glasses, mind you, but she definitely radiates “incoming rom-com makeover.”
And when her roommate (Debby Ryan) decides to set Sarah up with her boyfriend’s buddy Darren (Search Party‘s John Reynolds), you feel like maybe this pot has found her equally off-kilter lid. He’s nice, and sorta goofy and hipster-nerdy as well, and also, he has the same name as the hero on Purgatory, so this is totally fate, right? Sarah seems smitten. Except there are few indications that things seem a tad … off with this young woman. Like, for example, how the people at the stable aren’t exactly happy to see Sarah when she shows up all the time. Or how someone catches her just facing a blank wall in her apartment in the middle of the night. Or the way she keeps hallucinating that she’s in a white room lying between a middle-aged man (John Ortiz) and a twentysomething in a Sub Pop T-shirt (Dylan Gelula), and thinks aliens are abducting her, and she’s her grandmother’s clone, and …
Soon, we begin to find ourselves in a different, much darker movie than what we thought we stumbled into, something that’s a lot more interesting if not always entirely successful in its ambitious aims. The balance between a cinema du Duplass indie cringe-comedy (not coincidentally, the brothers are both producers; Jay Duplass shows up as a social worker) and the outright surreal ends up tipping heavily toward the latter as things progress, and what starts as merely oddball turns into a full-blown portrait of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Baena, who co-wrote the script with Brie, has always been someone who throws a bit of a curve in his pitches — this is the guy who penned I Heart Huckabees, and has directed both a zombie love story (Life After Beth) and a left-field adaptation of Boccaccio’s The Decameron (The Little Hours). The descent into sheer weirdness, complemented by Josiah Steinbrick and Jeremy Zuckerman’s primo beep-borp-boop synth score, occasionally feels like weirdness for its own sake. But the longer Horse Girl lets you spend inside this young woman’s dissociative state of mind, the more you feel your own grasp on the narrative begin to fracture. Form follows dysfunction.
What grounds the film, in more ways than one, is Brie. We’ve seen the actor play daffy, determined, depressed, sexy, sorrowful, naive, tough, faux-tough, faux-faux-tough, and funny. What we haven’t really seen her do before is play unhinged, and the way she shows you Sarah slowly slipping out of reality — then steeply sliding even further down a snake pit of instability — gives you the sense that Brie is flexing a new set of muscles. Whether you buy the ending or not is something between you and your own personal suspension-of-disbelief deity, but you can’t say that the star doesn’t commit to selling the character’s arc 100 percent. Insanity suits her. Let the other “ugly ducklings” turn into swans. This one transforms into a screeching, howling, smiling bird of prey in a patterned-cloth ninja’s outfit.