Sarah is a pretty normal girl. By day, she works at a craft store. Her coworkers are like her family. She really knows a lot about lacquers and fabrics. She’s got a good eye for color. Sometimes she goes down to the paddock after work and watches the horses and riders. Well, one particular horse. And in the evenings, she’s home, in her pajamas, binging her favorite show, Purgatory. Maybe you know it? The supernatural crime drama with that dreamy guy, Darren? Anyway, it’s good. Sarah’s good. She’s normal. But then, well, this is a movie, right? 

So, okay. Sarah’s kind of sad, actually. She seems sad. She goes to Zumba and her co-worker Joan (Molly Shannon) is really nice, and thoughtful, but Sarah doesn’t really have many, or any, friends. Not really. She has a roommate. Also nice. Normal. But Sarah kind of makes things weird sometimes. And what’s up with her family? They don’t seem to be around much. Like at all, and maybe she should talk to them? Because she’s kind of sad. She’s been visiting the graveyard, so maybe there’s something there? 

She could be Irish. People say. But she doesn’t really know much about her background. So, sure, maybe that DNA test will give her something to go on. To look forward to? Oh, but then one night, she meets this guy, her roommate’s boyfriend’s roommate, and like Sarah he’s just really…nice. So. And wait, his name’s Darren, too! Which could mean….

Which could maybe mean that there’s a pattern here. Of things. Not-normal stuff. Sarah’s sleepwalking, or whatever. And the weird dreams she’s been having, where she wakes up in this big white space and sees these two other people lying there, just like her. Or when she thinks, she knows, that what’s happening right now has already happened, or is just about to happen—and then it happens? That is definitely not normal, and Sarah doesn’t feel quite right, and people are starting to stare, but it’s all making sense now….

As with producers’ Mark and Jay Duplass’s The Overnight (2015), it would be unsporting to reveal in more detail what happens in Horse Girl, a frequently hilarious, but also often queasy manipulation of so-called reality that director Jeff Baena co-wrote with the film’s star, Alison Brie. Suffice to say that the drama develops out of the seemingly light comedy of Sarah’s sadness, her sense of incompleteness, which is linked to the question of her origins. When she’s out of sync with people, a little socially awkward, but trying not to be, the film is really funny, maybe because we’re at the beginning and we’re trained to expect that Sarah isn’t condemned to being this queer, smiley-sad person forever, that the meet cute between her and Darren (the real one) will lead, with some difficulty, to a happy, comic ending. I’m not saying that doesn’t happen, but the film’s tone and our response to Sarah gets darker once the strange happenings begin to pile up and she attempts to sleuth out their source. Baena and Brie use all of film’s tools—images, sound, editing, performance, script—to do what film does best: construct Sarah’s more and less convincing realities, slyly pushing the viewer to make some tough choices on the fly. One of these is whether or not to stop laughing. When does imagination become delusion, hope become madness, a condition that needs medical attention and our sympathy? Sarah’s search blurs these porous boundaries with as much surrealistic shock as Baena’s filmic spaces fluidly merge dream and waking experience. The journey is mesmerizing and disturbing, and Brie modulates her performance with great skill throughout. 

Extolling the pleasures of the imagination and the aims of Surrealism, Andre Breton wrote, perhaps too blithely, that “the insane…derive a great deal of comfort and consolation from their imagination…they enjoy their madness sufficiently to endure the thought that its validity does not extend beyond themselves.” Sarah may wish for a more general validation of her sense of things, but it’s personal consolation she seems to be pursuing most doggedly in Horse Girl, a desire with which we empathize, a feeling the film and Brie easily wring out of us through their charm and acts of comedy. But when desire turns to desperation, we feel something more like horror, maybe shame, as well as doubt about the film’s sensibilities. Still, we may pleasurably endure what follows to the end (I did, anyway), maybe only for the sake of our more or less self-aware desire for narrative comfort, our hope, or belief, that all will turn out as it should, meaning well. That’s the deranged magic that movies do, what they make us want, what the facades of happiness and satisfaction around us make us want, too. That’s the madness we seek in the dark as well as in waking life, where such dreams, like Sarah’s, of completeness and coherence make all of us not dreamers or optimists but mad men.