Directed by: Matt Spicer Written by: Spicer and David Brandon Smith
Is this the Aubrey Plaza role to break Aubrey Plaza roles? That opening sentence is called a hook; it gets your attention. Ingrid Goes West works much the same way. We meet Ingrid (Plaza), her murderous eyes under the shadow of a hoodie, as she vengefully lashes out at one of her peers in a pang of Instagram-induced jealousy. We never fully come to understand the origins of this behaviour, but as audiences we experience it in two related ways: 1) as a continuation of the, caustic and sick-of-the-world persona Plaza has come to be associated with and 2) as a distinct version of that persona that is not supposed to be read as a caricature at all. Ingrid is not a twenty-something in a goth phase; she is unwell, scheming and utterly lonely
The bulk of the film’s story depicts Ingrid’s journey as she goes to ridiculous ends to befriend an Instagram celebrity. Instagtram and smart phones shape not only the film’s story, but its aesthetic: a montage of hip meals, neon lights and parties. Ingrid Goes West is certainly not the first movie to prominently depict smartphone usage: slow texting scenes were a mainstay in another 2017 film, Personal Shopper. Ingrid Goes West, however, is notable for its relationship to the present. Her (2013) used our phone culture as a springboard for vaguely related projections about the future. Personal Shopper, meanwhile, is a film of its time, not about its time. Its character’s excessive phone use is simply a realistic depiction of life in the 2010s. Ingrid Goes West, however shoots its character’s phone use in such a way that audiences are made to feel uncomfortable. We are made to notice just how odd our society’s smartphone addiction looks when it’s blasted onto the bigscreen.
Ingrid eventually winds up in LA, and it is here that the story loses some of its charm. Ingrid essentially transitions from living with her miserable Instagram addiction to living in an Insta-reality. She befriends self-described photographer Taylor (Elizabeth Olson) and her manbunned artist husband Ezra (Wyatt Russel). She also comes to befriend Dan (O’Shea Jackson Jr), her young, casually dressed, landlord, whose defining trait is being a Batman nerd. Infatuated with Taylor’s hipster-lavish and carefree lifestyle Ingrid becomes a fairly generic protagonist. Of course, savvy audiences will realize this is all an illusion, but it does have the effect of making Ingrid Goes West, not unlike Colossal or Brigsby Bear as a film whose shortcomings can be attributed to its having a great beginning and end but no middle.
Ingrid Goes West’s effectiveness is further undermined in that we only get to know one of its characters, Ingrid, on a three-dimensional level. To some extent, this makes sense. In a film about the dangerous-shallowness of the Insta-life, Taylor’s stinging superficiality makes perfect sense. Ezra’s underdevelopment more questionable, however. This character is introduced as a privileged-hipster-caricature. The film begins to show that Ezra is unhappy with his role in the insta-world, but this nuance in his personality is eventually abandoned, returning him to the status of place-holder-character. Again, this writing choice is not all bad; It can be said to be part of the film’s spectrum of superficial portrayals. Taylor is made vane by the superficial, Ingrid is addicted to the superficial and Ezra has the consciousness to question the superficial, but not the consciousness to really understand what his questions are or to act on them .
The film’s 2-D character’s proble, however, is most unforgivable in the case of Dan. Dan’s function in the script is essentially that he exists outside of Taylor’s Insta-world: it is thus dramatic irony when Taylor’s brother Nicky (Billy Magnussen) refers to Dan as Ingrid’s “Imaginary Boyfriend.” Because Dan represents an escape from smart-phone superficiality, he is written in a way that lacks nuance. He comes across as perfect: he’s a kind, brave, forgiving, struggling-artist-without-the-financial-troubles.
But as I said, Ingrid Goes West does end brilliantly. As Ingrid’s perfect world falls apart and the Ingrid of old re-emerges, she is no longer scary: audiences will sympathize with her. Furthermore, if they haven’t gotten the message, it will become clear to them that the way we are led to judge Ingrid early in the film is very hypocrtical. She looks absurd as she systematically searches instagram for validation, despite the fact that this behaviour arguably defines our generation. Perhaps, Ingrid Goes West is thus not so much a critique of social media, but how social media interacts with our larger socioeconomic society. The 1% of social media (those making money off their avocado toast photos) are just as “ridiculous” as the Ingrids of the world, yet our social-media-social-class positions can lead us to experience social media addiction very differently.
Viewers should be aware there is a plot-point in the film that makes use of suicide in a way that may make it unsafe viewing for those with active suicidal tendancies. Other viewers should rest assured, however, that in context, this scene is tasteful and very poignant.
Ingrid Goes West is overall an easy-to-follow fable, told from the perspective of a struggling, compelling protagonist. Check it out, and prepare to have your own social media habits uncomfortably put on display