Alison Brie and Director Jeff Baena’s Personal Experiences Inspired Trippy Mental Health Dramedy ‘Horse Girl’

After appearing in his previous two films, “The Little Hours” and “Joshy,” Alison Brie gives her best performance to date in Jeff Baena’s dramedy “Horse Girl,” a film that she co-wrote with the director. At first glance, her character, Sarah, is a typical 30-something woman going through the motions of a typical life, although for some reason she has yet to establish many significant relationships, at least with humans, as she spends much of her time hanging out at the stable where the horse she had to sell resides, to the annoyance of the employees and the new owner. Her most meaningful friendship with Joan (a terrific Molly Shannon), her co-worker at a fabrics store who acts as her surrogate mother. However, as the story transpires, it becomes apparent that Sarah is grappling with some serious mental health issues, ones that manifest as sleepwalking/driving, vivid nighttime vision and paranoia.

Baena recently spoke in depth with Entertainment Voice about “Horse Girl,” including the genesis of the story. “[Brie] lives in my neighborhood and asked me if I wanted to go on a hike with her and talk about stuff. She sort of soft-pitched this idea of a woman who has a family history of mental illness who is experiencing unexplained events, sci-fi kind of stuff, and she’s incapable of distinguishing whether it’s really happening or if it’s a figment of her imagination.” 

This was a very personal story for Brie, as her own grandmother suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, something that she wove into Sarah’s character history. Baena also borrowed from his own life, as Sarah’s most notable quirk, her love of horses, comes from his own upbringing. It was during a horseback riding trip that he witnessed his former stepmother have a serious mental health episode.

“As a creative person, I don’t know how you don’t apply your personal experiences to your art. Because that’s all you have. I think, if anything, it was something where we wanted to treat mental illness with reverence, but also without it being condescending. We felt, based on our personal experiences, that we had something to say. We were trying to make sure that everything we did was authentic and honest and didn’t feel like it was pulling any punches, and was something we felt that hadn’t been communicated before was communicated in a way that we hadn’t seen before.”

It’s never far from Sarah’s mind that her grandmother and mother suffered from mental illness, especially when it gets more and more difficult for her to distinguish what’s real from what’s in her head. With such a solid script and earnest performance from Brie, the viewer easily becomes invested in Sarah, so much so that we start to wonder with her when strange things first start to happen. We root for her when it looks like she may have finally found someone who understands her, love interest Darren (John Reynolds), and it is difficult, almost heartbreaking to watch as this relationship goes sideways.

Mixed in with all of this heavy stuff is plenty of humor, such as Sarah’s fascination with “Purgatory,” a fictional procedural series starring Matthew Gray Gubler and Robin Tunney. With few friends and outlets to which she expresses herself, she becomes drawn into the world of the show, so much so that it serves as something of an inspiration for her own later explorations of what she perceives as the supernatural. Brie and Baena are careful to not make Sarah an object of ridicule, but that’s not to say that the viewer cannot laugh at certain situations and the way in which others around her respond to her behavior, particularly her more conventional roommate, Nikki (Debby Ryan).

Although Brie played a completely different character in “Joshy,” both films used humor to explore weighty topics like grief and mental health, and in both Baena seems to effortlessly balance the dark and the light, something that he doesn’t find all that difficult. 

“To me, the stakes in a movie where you’re dealing with something like mental illness feel a little bit lower if you’re not having the world feel as rich and alive as it is, so If you’re creating a melodrama about someone who’s going through mental illness, to me it feel a little bit staked towards the heavier side, and it’s doing a disservice to really selling the reality and authenticity to what that person is going through. I’m just trying to create some degree of neutrality, as opposed to feeling like you’re in a genre so that you’re kinda going on cruise control and expecting big monologues and dramatic moments. I think the sadder moments ring true when they’re tempered by some amount of humor and vice versa.”

Brie not only did an excellent job helping Baena find that balance, she also gets vulnerable on screen, at one point even literally bearing all. However, Baena revealed that the most difficult scene for her to film was not one that involved nudity, but one that required to tap into her own painful family history, a scene in which Sarah sits down with a social worker (Jay Duplass).

“Before one of the takes, I told her, ‘When you talk about your grandma, talk about your real grandma, as opposed to the character we created for this movie.’ So everything she is saying is sort of real. When she starts crying, it was real… Both of us were in awe of what happened.”

A lot of what makes Sarah relatable is the difficulty she has in being “seen.” No one around her truly seems to understand her, and her frustration is more than palpable when she tries to explain things and is treated in a dismissive manner. At the end of it all, Baena hopes the viewer takes away an important lesson about listening to others, even if their truth doesn’t jive with what we believe to be true.

“I think it’s very easy to dismiss people when they say things that we don’t believe, and whether or not it’s happening, those people do believe it, and I think it’s important to listen and care and have compassion for people, because it’s not like people who are having that don’t jive with our reality are doing it to us; it’s happening to them. Whether or not it’s real or if it’s imagined, we need to withhold judgement, because these people, if they either can’t differentiate or it is happening to them, are worth listening to, because they’re people, and their experiences and our experiences are equal.”

Horse Girl” begins streaming Feb. 7 on Netflix.