'Horse Girl' highlights gray area of mental health

Jeff Baena and Alison Brie at KCRW. Photo by Christopher Ho.

What if your dreams become so vivid and frequent that you can no longer distinguish between them and reality? That’s the premise of the new film  “Horse Girl.” 

It stars Alison Brie, who co-wrote and produced it with director Jeff Baena.

In explaining the so-called “horse girl” phenomenon, Baena says growing up, there was always a girl (or two) in school who rode horses and didn’t seem engaged with much else. 

In the movie, Alison Brie plays Sarah, who’s clinging to her horse girl youth. 

“She is a bit socially isolated. I think that is something that we took from the horse girl stigma. …. When I think of horse girls from middle school and high school, they had their own thing going on, and they kind of didn't care what other people thought about them,” Brie says. “And in Sarah's case, we've taken that to sort of a larger degree. And that now later in her adult life, she has isolated herself through these series of hobbies that she does alone.” 

Portraying the (de)evolution of Sarah 

Baena says the film always has elements of sadness, confusion and isolation. 

“What we're watching isn't some weird dark horror movie, but it's something that's more psychological and personal. So I wanted to see it through her eyes, and see it unfold as it's happening to her. … And I like the idea of some amount of mystery because things aren't answered for you in real life. And so we wanted to keep that sort of ambiguity, the gray area alive throughout,” he says. 


Alison Brie in “Horse Girl.” Credit: Katrina Marcinowski. 

A personal connection, and not trusting your own mind

Brie says her grandmother was partly the impetus for writing this movie. Her mom’s mother suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and died homeless in Santa Monica. 

“So for me, it became this exploration of like what is my personal fear of having mental illness in my bloodline? How does that manifest itself through me when I experience bouts of depression, even on a much smaller scale, that can freak me out?” she says. 

Brie adds that it got her thinking about how the inability to trust your own mind -- or having a genetic disease that’s out of your control -- is most terrifying.

Redefining “crazy” 

"We throw around the word ‘crazy’ a lot, and it doesn't really do justice to the thing that people are going through. And certainly we wanted to look at this character with a lot of empathy,” Brie says. 

Baena adds, “It's really dismissive just to say, ‘Oh they’re just crazy.’ Because they're an actual person. They're experiencing life like you are. … And to judge those people and basically write them off as being crazy, I think is sort of doing a massive disservice and … counting them out as people.” 


Director Jeff Baena. Credit: Katrina Marcinowski. 

--Written by Amy Ta, produced by Brian Hardzinski