First things first, Alison Brie is not a horse girl.
"A horse girl is a girl we all knew in middle school or high school who rode horses. She wasn't quite a nerd, she wasn't quite popular. She had a mysterious confidence that was propelled by this outside thing that the rest of us didn't really have access to," Brie explained to VICE. "I was not a horse girl. I was a drama nerd, but I'm often mistaken for a horse girl. I think it's because I have impeccable posture."
The horse girl aesthetic—one generally evoking privilege, braids, light wash jeans, The Saddle Club, and early Taylor Swift—seemed to Brie and her Horse Girl director and co-writer Jeff Baena (Life After Beth, The Little Hours) the perfect jumping-off point to explore a story about isolation and mental health rooted in Brie's own past.
"I've always had a fascination with my grandmother's mental illness. I really spent my life hearing my mother tell me stories about her mother's paranoid schizophrenia and what it was like to live with someone who's experiencing that," the Glow star said. "For my whole life, I've been thinking about it and what sort of artistic form it would take if I were to create something about that. And then more recently, it kind of coincided with my personal love of sci-fi films and thrillers."
The result is Horse Girl, a new Netflix film (out today) that starts off squarely in manic-pixie-dream-girl, indie-rom-com territory and quickly devolves into something much deeper and more interesting.
(Sorry to the frenzied trailer-speculating commenters, but Brie does not, in fact, animorph into a horse in this movie. "It never occurred to me that people would think that," she laughed.)
Instead, Brie co-wrote, produced, and stars as Sarah, a kind-hearted loner who works at a fabric store and is obsessed with her childhood horse and her beloved fantasy show, Purgatory. People orbit around Sarah's life: her mothering co-worker (Molly Shannon), her roommate (Debby Ryan), her potential love interest ( Search Party's John Reynolds). But only superficially. Her mom is dead. Her look-alike grandmother, like Brie's own, lived with mental illness. Something bad happened with her best friend and horses in the past. All of these things conspire to make Sarah an extremely isolated thirtysomething. When unexplained phenomena begin happening to her, she starts to question her reality—something 37-year-old Brie said she's often thought about in her own life.
"The more that I analyzed my personal obsession with my grandmother's mental illness, I honed in on how it related to me. And it came down to my personal fears of having mental illness in my bloodline," she said. "If and when something like that were to come on for me, would I have the awareness to know that it was happening? And how scary it is to not be able to trust your own mind."
At one point in the film, Sarah tells her therapist, "People always said my grandma was crazy...She got put into a place like this, and then Reagan closed down all the hospitals and she got put out on the streets and she just died as, like, a homeless woman."
It's a fleeting but highly specific reference.
"The Reagan thing is truly a real-life quote that my mother would say to me all the time," Brie said. "That is one of the main things that resonates with me when I think about my grandmother's life—how she died as a homeless woman living in Santa Monica on the streets. That scene actually contains the most personal information to me in the film."
But Horse Girl also leaves a lot of what Sarah goes through up to the audience's interpretation, and, alongside mental health issues, explores the surreal possibilities of alien abductions and cloning. "We did a lot of research online, and we found that if you could make a Venn diagram of certain types of mental illness and people who believe they've been abducted by aliens and sleep deprivation, there's a lot of overlap," Brie said.
"I hope people leave the movie with a strong sense of empathy for people who are struggling with mental illness. But I also hope that people pick up on some of the more supernatural elements and come up with their own theories about what's going on. We didn't set out to make a mental illness movie. This is not a PSA. We're not diagnosing our character. There's a lot of other things at play."
For the Hollywood native, the film marks the beginning of a promising screenwriting career. She’s already working with Baena on a second project and plans to team up with her husband, Dave Franco, on another.
"Jeff was obviously a really wonderful collaborator on this, and I'm excited to work with him again," Brie said. "But Dave is my favorite collaborator in life."