Director and co-writer Matt Spicer’s Ingrid Goes West is a smart social media satire, a dark millennial comedy that’s an impressive debut. One that manages to keep a fine balance throughout, but just falls short with its ending.
We first meet the titular Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) – a nobody from a nowhere part of the US – as she’s pepper spraying her friend, the bride of a wedding she’s broken over not being invited to. Well, it’s a woman she believes is her friend but is really just someone whose Instagram feed she’s been unhealthily fixated on. Ingrid is forced to seek help – or at least America’s solution of group therapy and medication – but her problems aren’t improved by her grief over her ill mother’s death. She’s unable to understand her issues and quickly moves on to another internet-fuelled obsession. A magazine profile on the Insta-perfect life of Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen) leads her down an intoxicating social media rabbit hole, with Olsen’s sincere narration of the posts’ captions managing to capture both their ridiculousness but also their undeniable allure. Soon Ingrid has withdrawn the money paid by her mother’s life insurance and set off for LA.
Ingrid doesn’t know who she is or what she is. The film effectively shows how being connected to everything oftens leads to feeling isolated. Every activity is performed with phone in hand, searching for something to identify with, right thumb endlessly scrolling and reflexively tapping out likes. She is seeking meaning in her life and thinks she’ll find it by becoming friends with Taylor, basically ‘reposting’ her life as if it were her own. Ingrid schemes her way into the social circle of Taylor and her husband Ezra (Wyatt Russell), and is soon manipulating her own landlord Dan (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) into helping her live this curated, vicarious life. Then things start to head for the same outcome as her last fixation.
In a way that makes it really current, but will also almost certainly date it quickly, Ingrid perfectly captures and satirises that modern subculture of Instagram celebrity. That mid-century, boho chic, farmers market, pressed juice vibe of people trying to turn themselves into a brand, of manufactured lives that belie an emptiness behind it all. Taylor has convinced Ezra to become an unwilling artist (his ‘paintings’ one of the film’s best visual jokes); they cling to objects while decrying commercialism, and declare each new thing or person as the best ever.
It’s a film that has hints of an LA noir in a Shane Black way, of a Coen brothers film where characters stumble into situations that soon spiral out of control, but all put through an Instagram filter in its colours and subject. It’s Black Mirror-like in its worries about the places technology can take us, what it can do to our brains, of the dwindling of privacy. But it’s actually most interested in its characters, even though it really doesn’t like them all. Only Jackson Jr.’s Dan emerges as anything close to a good person, but that seems to come as much from his screen presence as from the writing.
Plaza carries the film, bringing a perfect mix of blankness and intensity, of weirdness, desperation, light and dark to her character. Up to now her work in Legion was her most impressive, but here she skillfully manages to teeter between our sympathy and distaste, making us unsure of how to feel towards her. The character highlights the vapidness of the social climbers around her but also leaves us in no doubt of her sociopathy.
Ingrid loses its feeling of narrative assurance by the ending though, with a final scene that feels added on, like a cop out. Its consequences seem kind of irresponsible and tone-deaf, and almost completely undercut the message of everything that’s come before.
Ingrid Goes West is in cinemas from 26th October through Rialto Distribution.