“Horse Girl,” which is billed as a like-nothing-you’ve-ever-seen-before drama on mental health, is a confrontation of a film, one that is sure to stir conversation when it arrives on Netflix on Friday. It’s the first writing effort by the movie’s star Alison Brie (director Jeff Baena of “The Little Hours” is her cowriter, and the Duplass brothers executive produced), and the script was presented with no dialogue or stage direction.
For actress Debby Ryan, who appears as Brie’s roommate, it’s a turning point.
“I think that there is no going back after this,” says Ryan, dressed in a sharp blazer and leather pants on her first full day at Sundance, ahead of the film’s premiere.
The role is a growing-up moment for the 26-year-old former Disney Channel star, who is best known now for her role in the series “Insatiable.”
“I’ve been the lead of things. I am so grateful for every role that I’ve had. That being said, I am really enjoying learning from people who I admire, and being in different processes, in different genres, with different storytellers,” Ryan says. “And it’s incredible on-the-job training — it’s like going back and majoring in something that you never even took as an elective in high school.”
One such storyteller is Brie — “I could watch her read the phone book” — whose background as a performer proved inspiration for Ryan.
“We’re interpretive artists, right? So, when we’ve served other people’s stories for so long, it does sort of bare this ‘what story do you want to tell?’” Ryan says. “So I know that if someone has done a lot of acting, typically if they come up with a story, it’s with a lot of hard thought. Not only knowledge and skill from being in that world and around skilled mentors, but also inspiration.”
In “Horse Girl,” Ryan plays Brie’s roommate, and is witness to her unraveling.
“I have had roommates in my life that seemed cool when I had an empty room and they could move in, and I’ve watched them develop into the people that they are and navigate really tricky things,” Ryan says. “That grounding point, that hook, was what I really wanted. Maybe a touchstone of reality or consistency.”
Ryan is now a well-known face on social media — she has more than 15 million Instagram followers — and lead roles dotting her résumé, but making it in Hollywood hasn’t necessarily been handed to her, she says.
“I did not grow up in the industry. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh no matter what, you’ll be fine. You’ll have roles.’ I came out here and started from scratch. I carved a place and I continue to carve a place,” Ryan says. “Then when the initial place that I carved was so distinct and specific that it was so much harder and scarier and a seemingly braver thing to do for someone to take a chance on me, consistently seeing that hinder my opportunities made me that much more determined to fight for the things that are interesting and unique and inspiring. To me, that’s not the flashiest role.”