For many filmmakers, exploring the realm of social media has proven….challenging.
It’s very easy and all-too-common to slip into faux-deep generational commentaries that only serve to showcase how clever the director believes he is. Alternatively, films can show that the filmmakers don’t get the subject, or it treats the social media as a boring gimmick. There are dozens of ways that Ingrid Goes West, a story about social-media obsession from an unknown creative team, could have gone wrong. Fortunately, it manages to avoid the worst pitfalls and uses its powerhouse performances to gloss over the few missteps it does make.
Aubrey Plaza tears through the role of Ingrid Thorburn, a mentally unstable young woman who sets off for L.A. in search of her newest obsession: Instagram lifestyle influencer Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen). After some mild stalking and dognapping, Ingrid manages to Single White Female herself into Taylor’s inner circle, appearing at brunches and parties, being tagged in Instagram albums. However, Ingrid begins to discover that she can’t be more obsessed with Taylor than Taylor is with herself. The mixture of Ingrid’s instability and Taylor’s inconsideration begins to break Ingrid down, much to the detriment of everyone around them.
The primary victim of Ingrid’s meltdown (besides Ingrid herself) is her overly-generous landlord and love interest Dan Pinto, played with flawless charm by O’Shea Jackson, Jr. Jackson’s semi-naive nerdery brings a dash of endearing sweetness to a film which otherwise would feel overly mean. There’s something endearing about Dan Pinto, grinning through a cloud of vape smoke, handing an obviously-disinterested Ingrid his business card, which features the instantly recognizable Batman Forever font.
There’s a subversive touch in the interplay between Jackson and Plaza, and it makes perfect sense for a film dealing in false images. The imposing black man with guns and cocaine in his truck is actually a sensitive comic-obsessed dork, and the only person in the movie with a hint of sincerity. Meanwhile, the genuine threat to him and others is the skinny bleach-blonde girl who has convinced herself that avocado toast is good.
But this is really Plaza’s film, and allows her plenty of opportunities to show off her range. Plaza’s signature sardonicism takes a backseat to unrelenting desperation, but Plaza’s smart enough to know there’s a dozen ways to play that emotion. There’s humor in desperation, shown by Ingrid’s awkward teenager-esque first encounter with Taylor, but there’s also danger in desperation, evidenced by… most of the movie. Plaza plays both of these and more, often at the same time. Moreover, she makes these transitions effortlessly and is never dull to watch, even causing the audience to sympathize with Ingrid’s destructive impulses. (It helps that Ingrid’s primary antagonist, a coke-fueled braggart played by Billy Magnussen is so perfectly hateable).
Ingrid Goes West avoids the mistakes filmmakers have made with similar subjects by focusing solely on one very specific type of user in one specific platform – the #aesthetic-obsessed Instagram.
Because Instagram is a near-strictly visual medium, director Matt Spicer and DP Bryce Fortner have a lot of sensibilities to play around with. Before Ingrid actually goes West, her life is filmed with a patina of supermarket-lighting dullness, which makes the bright white of her phone screen all the more enticing and attractive. Once we hit the LA-setting, everything flows through varying levels of color treatment, Ingrid’s world literally becomes a series of Instagram filters. It’s garish and jarring at first, but our eyes gradually settle in, as Ingrid settles into her new social position. The film often uses symmetrical framing and dead-center blocking to replicate a heavily-cultivated look, imitating the sleek lines and neatness craved by Instagram’s photo-manipulating users – but also by Stanley Kubrick. As a result, Ingrid Goes West uses visual subtleties to make what the obviously manufactured feel smooth and natural, which is part of the point.
Driven by strong performances and clever visuals, Ingrid’s only real stumbling block is in timing and direction. A great deal of time is spent on the setup, and once Ingrid’s fabricated life converges with Taylor’s also-fabricated life, there doesn’t seem to be anywhere left to go. The film solves this by inserting Ingrid’s aforementioned nemesis as an agent of chaos, but he is removed from play too quickly. However, these complaints are minor and don’t keep Ingrid Goes West from achieving its goals. It’s an unpretentious dark satire that actually understands its subject and demonstrates the very appeal of the behavior it is condemning. Held up on the backs of Plaza and Jackson, Ingrid Goes West is a sincere movie about the downsides to false sincerity.
Actually Understanding the Subject
Sleek Thematic Visuals
Pacing and Direction
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