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Netflix’s excellent Horse Girl looks like a typical quirky indie comedy. It’s more than that.

Alison Brie stars in and co-wrote the empathetic look at a woman with a family history of mental illness.

Alison Brie co-wrote and stars in Horse Girl.
Netflix / Sundance Institute
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Every week, new original films debut on Netflix, Hulu, and other streaming services, often to much less fanfare than their big-screen counterparts. Cinemastream is Vox’s series highlighting the most notable of these premieres, in an ongoing effort to keep interesting and easily accessible new films on your radar.

Horse Girl

The premise: Sarah (Alison Brie) is an ordinary young woman living a very ordinary life: She works at a craft store, loves horses and Zumba, and watches her favorite supernatural procedural at home every night while her roommate goes out. But when Sarah meets a guy she likes and starts to have a frightening dream, her life upends itself entirely.

What it’s about: Brie co-wrote the screenplay for Horse Girl with the film’s director Jeff Baena, based partly on her own experiences with mental health issues in her family. Given Sarah’s gentle eccentricities, Horse Girl at first feels like just another quirky indie comedy — an impression that the fact it premiered at Sundance, which famously favors quirky indie comedies, did nothing to dispel.

But what starts out as a movie about two loners who find each other takes a turn into darker and more meaningful territory. Sarah’s mother and grandmother experienced serious mental health struggles, and Sarah is worried that she’s going to slip into the same delusions.

And for much of Horse Girl, you’re left wondering if maybe she has. The movie obscures whether what we’re seeing is real or if it’s inside Sarah’s head. That mirrors her own experiences: confusion, disorientation, paranoia, and the feeling of losing time.

So Horse Girl unspools as an empathetic, compassionate, and uncommonly thoughtful look into the fear that you’re a ticking time bomb, that the illness you saw your loved ones succumb to is going to take you, too, and that nobody will really understand you. It’s a little bit of a thriller, a little bit of a drama, a little bit of a comedy, a little bit of a romance — and wholly its own thing.

Critical reception: Horse Girl currently has a score of 66 on Metacritic. At Variety, Jessica Kiang writes, “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.”

How to watch it: Horse Girl is streaming on Netflix.

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