Sundance: Brie used her personal experiences to co-write the Netflix movie’s script with Jeff Baena, however its fantastical, quirky tackle psychological sickness by no means sits effectively.
Initially taking part in out as one thing of a gender-bent “Napoleon Dynamite,” the primary 20 minutes of Jeff Baena’s “Horse Woman” lean into a quirky character research earlier than tipping into unexpectedly darker areas. Star Alison Brie, who additionally co-wrote the movie alongside her “Little Hours” director, turns in her greatest massive display screen efficiency but, imbuing her Sarah with a compelling sweetness, and promoting each her awkwardness and kindness in equal measure, preserving the movie afloat when it makes extra baffling leaps. And that is a movie that makes baffling leaps, leaping from character comedy into a fantastical exploration of psychological sickness that’s by no means in a position to shake its foolish begin, including a queasy layer of wackiness to way more severe materials.
Sarah’s obsessions are minor and candy: she loves crafting, her horse Willow, her weekly Zumba class, and a schlocky supernatural crime present starring Robin Tunney and Matthew Grey Gubler in intelligent cameos. Her social life is nonexistent (regardless of some light pushes from her caring roommate, a beautiful Debby Ryan), however she loves her job at a native material retailer and her co-workers (particularly Molly Shannon, whose Joan acts as a mom surrogate). That Sarah is one thing of an object of pity even earlier than she begins experiencing psychological and emotional instability units her at a take away from the leap, as if we’re already meant to really feel unhealthy for her earlier than we actually have to really feel unhealthy for her.
Brie, nevertheless, holds quick to a character that’s clearly near her coronary heart, choosing empathy even when the movie is intent on constructing in dim diversions (sure, it’s humorous that her roommate’s fool boyfriend thinks he’s a burgeoning rapper, however what does that must do with something?). There’s lingering trauma in Sarah’s life, some delivered bluntly (she visits her mother’s grave, talks about her demise together with her stepdad, after which the movie nonetheless insists on exhibiting a flashback to it) and a few extra gracefully (her affection for a disabled pal, a restrained Meredith Hagner, is among the many movie’s loveliest inclusions). However the introduction of a potential love curiosity in the lovely Darren (John Reynolds, working like a younger Jason Segel) appears to sign constructive modifications in her quiet life. Not so quick.
Odd occurrences pile up: nosebleeds, terrifying nightmares, sleepwalking, and a tendency for Sarah to change into distracted by water and electrical energy. Their sudden morph into one thing way more sinister occurs shortly, pushed alongside by a dinner with Darren that redefines the idea of a unhealthy date. But Sarah’s descent into — what? insanity? instability? genetics? fantasy? one thing much more inexplicable? — happens quickly, simply because the script appears to be steadily constructing in the direction of one thing much less outlandish. A jittery, typically grating rating from Josiah Stenbrick and Jeremy Zuckerman teeters between the nightmarish and the tacky, setting the aural scene for each a horror movie and a quirky comedy. It by no means settles into both.
Brie has stated that the movie is predicated on her personal experiences with psychological well being, and that the inclusion of tales about Sarah’s grandmother and mom are purposely constructed in to higher mirror her personal life. The movie’s remedy of Sarah’s burgeoning sickness is rarely disrespectful, however it’s used as a catch-all excuse for all her off-kilter habits, all of her quirks and fears, her sudden bent in the direction of tinfoil hat-level conspiracy theories, and is ultimately handed off as one other idiosyncratic side of her unusual little life.
There are indications that “Horse Woman” and its creators have one thing to say concerning the sorry state of psychological well being care in this nation — what occurred to Sarah’s grandmother is blamed on Reagan-era insurance policies, and Sarah’s personal time in a facility is woefully inadequate — however it’s by no means explored past fundamentals. As an alternative, Baena unspools a long-form nightmare fantasy sequence that pushes Sarah by way of her personal addled mind in service to weird imagery over emotional substance.
Whereas Baena and Brie’s script wraps up a handful of smaller subplots into airless bundles (once more, the non-mystery of Sarah’s mom’s demise, the revelation of what occurred to Hagner’s character), extra urgent threads are by no means totally defined (understanding that it’s ostensibly about precise psychological well being struggles makes its sudden ending really feel, at greatest, like the straightforward, wacky manner out). Brie’s delicate efficiency almost rescues each Sarah and “Horse Woman” from falling into the awkward traps it units for itself, hedging on the powerful stuff in favor of weirdness for its personal sake, faux-arty model over something that would provide the slightest curiosity in therapeutic, for both its star or her story.
“Horse Woman” premiered in the Premieres part of the 2020 Sundance Movie Competition. Netflix will launch it on February 7.