Do we have 'horse girls' in the UK? I'm not sure.
We definitely have girls who are into horses, but we'd call them 'horsey'. And the definition of 'horsey' is very different from the one my US-based colleague Anne Cohen used to describe a 'horse girl'. "Every high school has at least one," she wrote. "A young woman, usually with long hair, who fully embraces denim and flower patterned flannel, and the more embroidered rainbow patches the better." Horse girl identifies as Hufflepuff and loves Lisa Frank imagery. Taylor Swift is cited as "the queen of horse girl energy".
Just because you don't know what a horse girl is, doesn't mean you should write off Horse Girl, the new Alison Brie film on Netflix. It's weird and wacky and beautiful and upsetting and it should definitely make it onto your watch list, not only for those reasons but also because it's one of very few films that portray a woman with a mental health issue in all her out-of-control, unsexy and inconvenient glory.
Horse Girl is Brie's first screenplay; she co-wrote it with director Jeff Baena. Main character Sarah, played by Brie, works at a craft shop. She tiptoes quietly through life and devotes most of her spare time to Purgatory, the TV show she watches obsessively, and her ex-horse, Willow, who she likes to visit often, much to the new owner's chagrin. When strange things start happening to Sarah, viewers are asked to question whether something otherworldly is going on or whether Sarah's family history of mental health problems has finally trickled down to her.
The idea for the film came from Brie's own family. "My grandmother lived with paranoid schizophrenia," she told R29. "I grew up hearing stories about her mental illness and how it affected my mother, and my aunts and uncle." The more Brie says she analysed her own fear of having mental illness in her bloodline, the more she homed in on this idea of a female character going through something similar.
There is a long, proud history of films about men with mental health issues. From One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest to Fight Club, Psycho to Shutter Island, men going through devastating emotional breakdowns in full and raw colour on screen is, quite rightly, a recipe for awards ceremony success. See most recently: Joaquin Phoenix receiving an Oscar for his performance in the brilliant Joker.
All too often, cinematic depictions of mentally ill women come packaged in a thick layer of male gaze-iness
All too often, however, cinematic depictions of mentally ill women come packaged in a thick layer of male gaze-iness. 'Crazy' girls, the message has been, are wild. And if men can just get past the annoying day-to-day dramas, the sex will be mindblowing. Think Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted, Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, Natalie Portman in Black Swan – whose character's weakening grip on reality is portrayed through a much-rewatched sex scene with Mila Kunis.
This is not to diminish the importance of these films; Girl, Interrupted in particular. Based on Susanna Kaysen's memoir about spending nearly two years in an institution after being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder in the 1960s, the film – especially the character portrayed by the late, great Brittany Murphy – gave voice and representation to sufferers of OCD, eating disorders and schizophrenia, and victims of sexual abuse, at a time (1999) when public understanding of mental health issues was nowhere near where it’s at now. In his New York Times review, Stephen Holden wrote that Girl, Interrupted "loses its nerve in the final scenes by making sure we know that Lisa (Jolie) is really a hopeless nut case." The implication being that had she not gone 'full' crazy, the film would have had a stronger ending.
Why, then, was Jack Nicholson allowed to go 'full' crazy in The Shining? Why Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver? Why Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind? These depictions of breakdowns are lauded as great performances and they certainly aren't remembered through a sexually gratifying lens.
We know that people need to feel seen by the movies they watch; the lack of women and people of colour nominated at this year's BAFTAs and Oscars has been heavily protested. Film is a powerful tool for letting people know that they're not the only one going through something and when it comes to mental health, there's a huge amount of stuff we're still not really talking about. The open discourse that social media and the internet encouraged several years back was quickly diluted by a sanitised and commodified conversation. Instagram posts with motivational aphorisms are well meaning but they will not end a depressive episode. Beautiful selfies of celebrities talking about their panic attacks do not 'further the conversation'. Instead, this neat packaging of mental illness into 'content' for social media leads sufferers to divide their disorders in two. There's the 'acceptable', front-facing part of the struggle, and the ugly, inconvenient and messy side that we keep suppressed. It's the side we're embarrassed by and which we don't see validated in popular culture. It's the side of mental illness that belongs in a gritty, difficult and devastating film.
This is why Horse Girl, with all its oddities, is a welcome step. Brie's character isn't remarkable. She's not rich, she doesn't have legions of followers, her job isn't impressive. She's a normal woman going through an incredibly difficult time in a way that makes those around her feel uncomfortable. Her disorder can't be hidden away to placate her flatmate Nikki, who worries what the landlord will say after Sarah etches strange things into the wall. Her mind can't be cured overnight to assuage the guilt of her stepfather Gary, no matter how many $100 bills he waves awkwardly at her.
Horse Girl isn't a perfect film but it offers a glimpse of a mental health condition that most of us couldn't begin to imagine experiencing, and does so through a character who feels human and relatable. It manages to do what other films about mental health do not: to further the discourse authentically, not through a filtered lens. And that's going to make those who feel alone, feel a whole lot better.