This time last year, I was sure I was dead.
I don’t mean dead in any kind of metaphorical sense. I mean dead, as in not living. What you have to understand is that I had no evidence of this state: I was still walking around like someone who was alive, still talking to people when I felt like I had to, and was still working. Yet I was still dead, flies were buzzing around me, attracted by my decomposing body, so how I was still here was something of a mystery to me. I wasn’t a zombie, as I was still able to think; it was also strange that I was completely calm about the whole situation, the only thing that really bothered me was that no one seemed to notice I was dead. I was the only person who knew.
This led into deeper delusions; I was sure I was possessed by some force that wouldn’t let me into the afterlife. It probably didn’t help that I was watching and reading a lot of stories about possession, that despite my atheseim I was possessed by a demon: it may even have been, I told myself, my atheist beliefs that made me such an easy target. I know now that I wasn’t dead, that I wasn’t possessed, that after a period of time in hospital I discovered that I was suffering from psychotic depression, combined with bipolar II.
Which brings me to the Netflix Original film, Horse Girl. Starring Alison Brie as a woman who suffers a mental breakdown, Horse Girl charts the intricacies of this breakdown and how convincing a break from reality can be to the person going through it. While Brie has deservedly taken the lion’s share of the film’s positive reception, the story itself, which Brie co-wrote with director Jeff Baena, has had a lot of criticism flung its way for trying to be too much, too messy, too ambitious. Brie has said that the story is inspired by the mental health history of her family, and Horse Girl does have that honesty and sensitivity of someone who really knows what they are talking about.
The film is frustrating – it feels chaotic, and abstract, but the point of the story is to get you inside this woman’s head, to feel her confusion, to see and understand her connections, however flimsy they are. What’s impressive about Horse Girl is its respect towards mental health and the reality that it can present to the person going through it, however unfounded. That woozy dream-logic is a deeply discomforting thing to observe from the outside, but Horse Girl is a movie that tries to push past that to put you inside of it.
For a long time, films about mental illness have ended with a bow tied around a comfortable ending. If it’s positive, then you leave the ward with the new love of your life who just happens to be Emma Roberts. If it’s negative, then you get lobotomized. It feels like there is a shift happening when it comes to stories about mental illness, where small films like Horse Girl use the talent and status of their star to tell a more complicated story than we are used to seeing. There aren’t a lot of easy answers to a psychotic break, and if you are going to make a film about it that has any respect for the subject then you have to be aware of that, aware of how impossible a way out often seems.
In my opinion, Horse Girl has achieved just that. With perceptive writing, gorgeous direction, and a powerhouse performance from Brie to pin it all together, Horse Girl is an uncomfortable but deeply prescient look at living with psychosis – even without the happy endings or easy answers that we’re used to.
By Kevin Boyle
(header image via Haven of Horror)