A funny thing happens about a third of the way into “Horse Girl,” Jeff Baena’s fourth Sundance feature after “Life After Beth,” “Joshy” and “The Little Hours.” Or rather, a funny thing stops happening: the familiar, steady-heartbeat rhythms of the low-budget social awkwardness comedy become erratic, tachycardiac, as the initially endearing foibles of the film’s heroine, Sarah (a revelatory Alison Brie), are found to have deeper roots and more painful ramifications than feels right to laugh at. It’s the point at which we realize that “Horse Girl” is not your classic, hackneyed Sundance indie and is instead a far weirder, harder and sadder subversion of just that stereotype. It’s the point at which the movie stops being cute, and starts being good.
The setup is such a convincing red herring though, that for a while it functions just fine as your standard offbeat dramedy, laden with oddball characters and quirky situations and Molly Shannon. Sarah is a lonely young woman who makes up for her social discomfort by trying a little too hard, smiling a little too broadly. She works in an arts supply store, wears a washed-out blue smock and knows way too much about crafting materials — paint consistencies, the ideal shape for agates and how to make a brightly colored lanyard to braid into your horse’s mane. Her hair is worn in a demure half-up style, clipped back with a modest nice-girl barrette.
She has endured a recent tragedy — her mother’s suicide — as well as a childhood trauma that has something to do with a riding accident, the horse she adores but no longer owns, and the friend she visits who has mild brain damage and motor function impairment. She has an obsessive love for a schlocky TV show called “Purgatory” — a sort of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” riff about demons and detectives that stars Robin Tunney and actually looks like pretty good fun.
So far, so bittersweet-adorkable. Still, when her birthday rolls around, Sarah has nothing to do except her Zumba class, and so her pretty, socially adept flatmate Nikki (Debby Ryan) gives her a quick makeover and sets her up with sweet, bumbling Darren (a delightful John Reynolds). Against the odds, they hit it off.
But just as things are looking up, and at just the point that the film seems destined to settle into a knockabout odd-couple rom-com groove, Sarah’s spells of sleepwalking worsen and her nosebleeds come more often. She has strange prophetic dreams that feature people she has not met yet but soon will, like local plumber Ron (John Ortiz) and a troubled young woman who believes she has woken up in the wrong decade (Dylan Gelula). Cobbling together internet conspiracies, “Purgatory” plotlines, a hazy knowledge of her family history and a grandmother to whom she bears a striking resemblance, Sarah becomes increasingly paranoid, babbling about clones and aliens and time loops and “immortal alchemists” to co-worker Joan (Shannon), to stepfather Gary (Paul Reiser), to Darren — to anyone who’ll listen. Each time, the logic of her pet theories somehow disintegrates the moment they’re let out from her head into the skeptical world, like perfectly intact mummies that crumble to dust on exposure to air.
At times, DP Sean McElwee’s photography can feel anonymously bland, but its prosaic register has a point, bedding even the most outrageous of Sarah’s visions and dreamstates into reality. Ryan Brown’s editing, too, does a fine job of sliding us invisibly from reality to unreality and back again, while Josiah Steinbrick and Jeremy Zuckerman’s elastic score, by turns menacing and comforting, often plays like an otherworldly counterpart to the sensible, down-to-earth imagery. But most of the credit for our intimate identification with the confusion and terror and occasional bliss of Sarah’s devolving condition has to go to Brie, who co-wrote the screenplay with Baena and whose totally inhabited performance grants us such uncomfortably close access to the lived experience of delusional paranoia.
It makes the film a challenging but moving and valuable watch — and an uncompromising corrective to the kind of storytelling that uses a person’s (often a woman’s) psychological fragility as a wacky narrative device, or a problem to be solved (often by a man), or an interesting way to accessorize an otherwise dowdy personality. The transgressiveness of Baena and Brie’s strange and sorrowful “Horse Girl,” is in how it turns the simplistic, inauthentic tweeness of the generic, quirky indie comedy in on itself to produce a rare and piercingly compassionate exploration of the sorts of madness that come from intense loneliness, and the intense loneliness that comes from being regarded as mad.