Instagram should probably be billed as a co-star in Ingrid Goes West. Instagram’s rhythms; tap tap, CLICK, an empty heart goes lovely pinkish red; it’s mannerisms, and aesthetic, #perfect are the core of this sharp film from Matt Spicer, who directed and co-wrote the script with David Branson Smith. Characters read their posts aloud, usernames and hashtags included, a stylistic affect that is used just enough to be useful and incisive, but not so often as to be a crutch. It’s certainly appropriate for a film dedicated to exploring the toxic brew of obsession, addiction, image, hope, and despair burbling just beneath the glossy vision of life so often found on Instagram.
Ingrid Goes West begins with a brutal act of pre-meditated violence that lands Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) in a mental institution, a horrible act that grew out of an irrational attachment to someone because of a casual Instagram interaction. For a good bit of the prologue of this film, it is just us, Ingrid, and her phone. Aubrey Plaza sells the drudgery of Ingrid’s gray existence, both in the institution and in the home she used to inhabit with her mother who has recently died after a long illness (the detritus of home care is strewn all over her abode), very well. It is not hard to understand why Ingrid chases the Insta-life of Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), her latest obsession, when she is presented with a cashier’s check for the settlement of her mother’s estate. With $60,000 in a backpack and absolutely no thought for the future, Ingrid goes to LA to find Taylor’s beautiful breakfast spot and to create a life for herself that so resembles the idea that Taylor is creating on her Insta feed that Taylor will have to accept Ingrid as her friend. After that, who knows? Certainly not Ingrid.
Ingrid is awkward and socially graceless but she has a burning, intense sincerity that charms the pants off people. Whenever that is not enough, she also has the ultimate social lubricant: cash. Ingrid lands a home base in LA when she stumbles on an apartment being rented by a Batman-obsessed stoner named Dan (Straight Outta Compton’s O’Shea Pinter) who instantly crushes on Ingrid. Before long, Ingrid succeeds at ingratiating herself with Taylor through the kind of dirty trick that would prominently feature in a Ben Stiller movie - the awkwardness quotient of Ingrid Goes West generally lands in the same “squirm-inducing” zone of Stiller’s best work. Cash and obsession assisted, Ingrid does her best to have the same experiences and read the same books and like the same things as Taylor. She is rewarded with an inside view of a couple, Taylor and artist husband Ezra (Wyatt O’Keefe) that should be a cautionary tale. Taylor’s job is to be a brand ambassador on Instagram; she is, essentially, a living billboard, a tableau vivant of capitalism. Ingrid is largely oblivious, though, to the tension this brings to Taylor’s relationship with Ezra, who doesn’t even have a smart phone, though we see it very, very clearly.. Matt Spicer and David Branson Smith do a great job exploring the relationship tensions between Ezra and Taylor and the sharp edge that every day life mediated by the irreality of the social graph gives to all relationships IRL. The film excels at exposing the #firstworldwhitepeople emptiness of Taylor and Ezra’s existence, even as such hints of the howling void inside their lives fly right past Ingrid.
Aubrey Plaza continues to be amazing at playing intense and awkward, her Ingrid means so so so well even as she engages in skulduggery to keep her fantasy world alive. Elizabeth Olsen, who has undoubtedly lived the exact kind of disjoint between the reality of life vs life as presented to /created by consumers that Ingrid Goes West so precisely skewers, is also excellent and subtle, allowing us glimpses of Taylor’s abject fear as Ingrid’s sincerity exposes just how much of her Insta-life is a facade. O’Shea Pinter is really fun as the comic nerd stoner landlord, even if Dan and Ingrid have a bizarre chemistry that feels like it comes from a different movie entirely, a rom-com about weirdos forced together who find things they need in each other despite it all (a movie I would totes watch, btdubs).
The magic life inside the tableau proves to be a short-lived experience for Ingrid, not just because Ingrid’s backpack isn’t big enough to contain enough cash to keep living dat branded life. While Ingrid moves relentlessly forward, aided immensely by her possession of cash money and a clear set of signposts being thrown off by Taylor’s Instagram feed her own growing popularity, like an Insta-Wile E. Coyote spinning his legs over the void, magically avoiding a fall to the distant ground below, but only as long as they aren’t aware of the danger. Ingrid becomes aware of the void when she meets Taylor’s obnoxious brother, Nicky (a ripped Billy Magnussen), a Tasmanian-devil of coked up bro-dom who instantly suspects Ingrid of being up to no good, scammer recognizing scammer, game recognizing game.
The final act of Ingrid Goes West doesn’t quite integrate the successful critique of Instagram poseurdom of the rest of the film thanks to an over reliance on plot machinations involving blackmail plots and counterplots, revelation, and an unwelcome return of focus to Ingrid’s (supposed) lack of mental stability to bring her crashing down. Most of the film is a high wire act where Ingrid, while she has enough cash to keep it going, mostly succeeds in making herself into a completely different person than the one we met, trapped in grief and institutional hell, as the lines between being someone and pretending to be one bleed until the performance of an assumed identity starts to become undistinguishable from authenticity. Ingrid, by now friendless, cashless, and utterly alone recognizes that her obsessive drive to re-invent herself makes her exactly like Taylor and Ezra, they are just less desperate and more fortunate than Ingrid in where they started, but those ships have sailed and been burned on the beaches of the New World by the time she can articulate that and all she is left with is a much more radical act, performed in full view of the world on Instagram, which is exactly as it should be.
Ingrid Goes West is ultimately a rewarding sit, thanks to its incisiveness about Insta-culture and some really charming performances, even if the frame of mental illness is ultimately unhelpful. Spicer’s movie explores the darkness in human beings’ insatiable desire to belong and be seen, a desire that can be pushed well beyond what is healthy, and not just by people like Ingrid. Despite the third act missteps, Ingrid Goes West ends in a space whose bleakness stems from its banality. Ingrid’s pursuit of a place in the Insta-celebrity world draws our attention to how the desire for engagement and the need to live up to an image that someone else provides can be so caustic but thrilling, a vicious, addictive cycle that might not be very good for us . . . not that we can figure out how to stop it.