A movie that could not have been made before now, Ingrid Goes West delivers a scathing indictment of contemporary culture, particularly those Instagram and online identities who serve up every aspect of their life to the millions of gullible and delusional followers who are seemingly incapable of making any kind of decision for themselves; such as whether or not their choice of scatter cushions (or anything else similarly asinine) are ‘on trend’. Whilst these faux celebrities seem easy targets for ridicule, director Matt Spicer avoids the temptation of simply serving up a piss-take, instead delivering a powerful, biting expose that explores the darker reality for many who live vicariously through the artifice of these curated lives. Aubrey Plaza is remarkable as the eponymous Ingrid, a delusional young woman who just can’t help herself when it comes to falling under the spell of the latest social media darling dishing up all manner of wisdom and good taste.
When we first meet Ingrid, she is crashing a wedding and assaulting the bride in retaliation for not being invited. We subsequently learn that the two women weren’t even friends and it was just a case of Ingrid interpreting her obsession with the bride’s Instagram feed as some kind of personal connection between them. After a stint in a psych ward, Ingrid returns to the house she shared with her recently deceased mother. Seemingly with no friends or family, it isn’t long before Ingrid finds herself under the spell of another social media celebrity named Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen). Using money she inherited from her mother, Ingrid heads to Taylor’s California neighbourhood and rents an apartment from Batman–obsessed aspiring screenwriter Dan Pinto (O’Shea Jackson Jnr). Before too long, Ingrid has wheedled her way into Taylor’s life and everything looks rosy, for a little while at least, until cracks start to appear in the various relationships and it become apparent that not everything is at it seems between Taylor and her artist husband Ezra (Wyatt Russell). Throw in Taylor’s boorish brother Nicky (Billy Magnusson) determined to expose Ingrid, and much emotional upheaval ensues.
Perhaps best known as April Ludgate on television comedy Parks and Recreation, a role that has seen her subsequently declared the queen of deadpan, Plaza featured in supporting roles for directors such as Whit Stillman (Damsels in Distress), Judd Apatow (Funny People) and Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim vs the World) before landing her first lead in Colin Trevorrow’s Safety Not Guaranteed. Described by Parks and Recreation co-creator Michael Shur as the weirdest girl he has met in his life, Plaza was flagged by MTV as the perfect choice to play sarcastic, cynical high school student Daria in a live-action version of the ‘80s cult animation, should such a movie ever come to fruition. Whilst she has built a career playing such unconventional types, this is a much darker turn for Plaza and she is pitch perfect as a lonely, damaged young woman whose single-minded determination to befriend Taylor knows no bounds.
Plaza is unnerving at times as Ingrid stumbles from one embarrassing decision to another, leaving you conflicted about whether you should pity her or despise her because, although the inherent sadness of her delusional disposition demands our sympathy, there are many moments when she is infuriatingly selfish and self-sabotaging. Plaza makes Ingrid both hilarious and tragic and just when it seems as though she has secured our sympathy, the final frames might just leave you feeling a sense of betrayal. Even though you realise that the ending is, in fact, the most likely scenario given what we know about Ingrid, it is no less infuriating when it happens, although not in a way that detracts from the movie. In fact, it is terrific that first-time feature director Matt Spicer (who co-wrote the screenplay with David Branson Smith) has opted to stay the course, rather than deliver a redemption story in which our protagonist undergoes some kind of transformation in the interests of leaving audiences feeling good about what the future may hold for Ingrid. With great performances all round, Ingrid Goes West is a timely reminder that the rise of social media, like any fundamental shift in social practice, has implications for those on the margins trying to find a place for themselves in a world in which personality is performative and social ‘worth’ is measured in ways we couldn’t have imagined just 10 years ago.