In the new Netflix film "Horse Girl," Alison Brie plays a horse-loving young woman named Sarah who sells fabric at a craft store.
Sarah takes Zumba, binge watches her favorite TV show and makes accessories for her former horse, Willow. But the film takes an eerie turn when she begins to experience time loss, dreams of waking up in a mysterious white room and finds bruises on her body that she can't explain.
Was Sarah abducted by aliens? Or could her experiences be connected to her family history of mental illness? Brie, who also co-wrote the script, says the film intentionally leaves the audience wondering.
Though Brie has enjoyed reading fan theories about the end of the movie, the filmmakers wanted the ambiguous ending to prevent the audience from passing judgment on Sarah like some of the characters in the film, she says.
“We didn't want people to be on the outside of her experience. We didn't want to leave room for people to be judging her,” she says. “We wanted the audience to be along for the ride, experiencing that terror of not knowing what's real and what's not real until the very end.”
Sarah is a “horse girl” — an archetype that describes middle school or high school girls who are unapologetically obsessed with riding horses.
For Brie, horse girls are confident, have great posture and possess a “mysterious,” “ethereal quality.” Unbothered by what’s going on at school, horse girls don’t run with the cool kids, but they aren’t nerdy either, she says.
The writers wanted to start the story later in life when Sarah is no longer a horse girl.
“The horse is no longer hers, and she really can't ride the horse anymore,” she says. “She's disconnected from the happiest time in her life and sort of moments when she felt like everything was good and that she was OK and really stable.”
Sarah's mother had depression and her grandmother was committed to a mental institution. This mirrors Brie’s family history with mental illness — her mother lives with depression and her grandmother had paranoid schizophrenia.
Brie wanted to venture into the sci-fi and thriller genres with this film, though the paranoia her grandmother experienced was less focused on the supernatural. Instead, her grandmother formed conspiracy theories about the government, doctors and other people she thought were tapping her phone and bugging her house, Brie says.
“To be at odds with one's own mind is just a terrifying prospect.”Alison Brie
Living with this family history led Brie to fear how mental illness might manifest in her life. Brie says she’s experienced “scary and seemingly never-ending” bouts of depression that made her feel helpless.
Those experiences felt unfair because the depression wasn’t linked to anything happening to her life and felt out of her control, she says.
“What if I had some strange experience and I didn't have the power to know if I could trust my own mind?” she says. “To be at odds with one's own mind is just a terrifying prospect.”
Diving into the topic of mental illness in this film allowed Brie to channel her own fears into artistic expression. She’s not sure if she’ll approach the subject again in future projects, but she says it’s been “gratifying” to make “Horse Girl” and hear viewers with mental illness in their family share how the film resonated with them.
“This movie has been so cathartic for me because the subject matter is so personal,” she says. “It's a subject matter that I've wanted to write something about my whole life. I've always had a fascination with my grandmother and her mental illness and how it affected the whole family in different ways.”
The film’s writers didn’t intend to start a conversation about mental illness, but the reaction to the film made Brie realize the subject is not talked about enough.
“There continues to be a stigma about things even as common as depression,” she says. “So it wasn't really our initial intention, but I've just been so excited by the reaction and I guess really grateful that it broke open this larger conversation.”
This segment aired on February 19, 2020.