by Ken Bakely
The action liking a post on Instagram (a double-tap on your phone screen) is meant to be simple, and yet, to the person on the receiving end, it’s an endorsement, in the line of unspoken communication. In the first scenes of Matt Spicer’s Ingrid Goes West, the titular Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza), a twentysomething in suburban Pennsylvania, goes through the pictures on her feed, and likes them as a reflexive action. She only mulls it over once or twice, and always chooses to engage. We pull back and discover that she’s outside a wedding reception. She goes in, walks up to the bride, and pepper sprays her. Why? Because she wasn’t invited. They followed each other online, and Ingrid considers any kind of interaction to be a personal sign of devotion and friendship.
Ingrid is committed to a mental institution, and upon release, receives a $60,000 inheritance from her late mother. While pondering how to use the money, she scrolls through Instagram and discovers Taylor (Elizabeth Olsen), an online personality who has gained fame by using her profile as a kind of blog, featuring the most precise, perfect moments from her life. Brands pay considerable amounts of money for her to advertise their products. Ingrid comments on one of Taylor’s most recent posts, a picture of some avocado toast. Taylor writes back, mentions where she ate it, and tells her to “check it out the next time you’re in L.A.!”
Ingrid now knows what to do with her inheritance.
This is only the tip of Ingrid Goes West, as Spicer rips through the boundaries of what to expect from the material. With a low-key, discomforting quirk, the film evolves into more operatic actions. Ingrid moves to Los Angeles, rents an apartment from a Batman-obsessed aspiring screenwriter (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), and then, through a carefully staged dognapping, tricks her way into becoming close with Taylor. They’re not friends – their relationship is predicated on opportunism, imbalances, and deceit. Between Plaza’s show of personal desperation, and Olsen’s mastery of the fake smile, the two actors depict both the chasm between their personas, and the undercutting of similarities which drive both to extremes.
Spicer makes the wise decision to avoid turning the film into another warmed-over satire of social media fame. Ingrid Goes West is not a message movie, but a blaring tragicomedy. Ingrid does not understand why her behavior is off-putting, and Taylor refuses to believe that there are people out there with reasons to dislike her, adding an oblivious schadenfreude to the already humorous proceedings. Characters put themselves in boneheaded situations, in messes which are of their own volition.
At the same time, Ingrid Goes West does not use the viewer as a superior lens, but as a grounded observer. We may find Ingrid’s drastic measures repugnant, but thanks to a well-written script and a knowing performance from Aubrey Plaza, we also get why her skewed logic would tell her to act in that particular way. That it is so easy for a clearly unwell person to join the outer echelons of internet stardom is a clear observation. As long as you can put on a thin veneer of idealism, you can go far in that world. In a similar way, the ties between these characters are as flaky. When Taylor’s repugnant brother (Billy Magnussen) enters the picture and makes an accidental discovery about Ingrid, everything collapses into a destructive, flaming mess.
From there, the movie only gets darker. Its acidity serves as both a blessing and a curse – while we value its consistency, the characters can’t grow in such a repressive environment. Maybe the point is that they wouldn’t have been able to anyway, but Spicer is uninterested in investigating the matter. Ingrid Goes West ends on its single cruelest indictment – one which is almost impossibly biting, scheming, and believable. The ride to get there has been singular, although a great source of entertainment. The film cuts to black, and we become a little more aware of its overriding mastery of its own structure. Everyone has found themselves, at once, both where they always were, and where they were always going to end up. From past, to present, to an implied future, their worlds are as complex as their tangled webs with each other, but simple enough to either fall apart or rocket upwards under a single gesture.