BrandonHabes’s review published on Letterboxd:
Starts off like you’re watching a classic indie template—quirky tone, cutesy weirdness, oddball characters, etc. It then unexpectedly shifts into a supernatural exploration of mental illness, blending horror and science fiction into the stuff of prophecy and nightmare. I’m still on the fence regarding the film’s treatment of mental illness (a serious subject that’s handled here with a very tricky, ambitious, at times uncomfortable tone).
It’s not that the film’s perspective is necessarily disrespectful. It’s that we’re occupying the psychological fragility of a woman whose descent into madness doesn’t feel right to laugh at. I’m torn though, because we’re not experiencing this disability from an outsiders perspective, which would make laughing egregious, but from Sarah’s perspective, whose sweet yet quirky personality has already won us over long before mental decay even enters the picture.
Take, for example, how we’re introduced to Sarah. We immediately sense something is off about her and we’re made to feel bad for her. She’s too sweet and lovable and awkward to be laughed at, so we’re usually laughing with her to pledge our own insecurities against. The story then morphs into dark, scary places, with paranoid, schizophrenic delusions threatening the semi-normative vision we have of Sarah, and it’s at this point where we’re really made to feel bad for her.
We move from Sarah-as-weirdly-endearing to Sarah-as-mentally-unhinged, but the thing I can’t shake is we’re usually always laughing, a giggle here, a giggle there, and it’s not always clear why (at least with the audience I was with). Laughter is a coping mechanism, sometimes subversive, sometimes innocent, and sometimes ambiguous. HORSE GIRL is like a mixture of all three impulses.
I was trying to imagine what someone with mental illness might think of this, and it’s that tonal tap dance between empathy and comedy that always feels dangerously lodged between “laughing with” versus “laughing at.”
What’s the difference? Mental illness seems hardly the kind of thing to be used as a wacky narrative device played for laughs. On the other hand, the film’s subjective point of view is deeply wedded to Sarah’s terrorizing mental state, so much that it’s working overtime to make even the audience confused between the real and the unreal. And to that effect, we’re forced to examine our own sanity and odd habits that go against the social grain, placing us directly into Sarah’s headspace even when we’re coping with a chuckle.
Maybe Sarah’s delusions are reality after all? Maybe we, the “normalized” viewers, are the ones who are really insane? In a climax that reminded me a lot of the climax in SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED, we’re given a very empathetic vision of what it might be like to be Sarah. It’s beautiful as it is expressionistic, invasive as it is disturbing.
I’m gonna need to sit on this one a little longer, but it’s definitely one of the more strangely ambitious takes I’ve seen on the topic.