The spiky social satire Ingrid Goes West dovetails nicely with a theory I have about people: That everyone—or at least everyone who has the luxury of free time—is obsessed with something. Maybe you’re obsessed with working out. Maybe you’re obsessed with Game of Thrones. Maybe you’re obsessed with scrapbooking or gardening or stamp collecting.
Ingrid Goes West focuses on an especially au courant obsession—Instagram, that little corner of the social media universe where we post images of perfectly pedicured toes on sandy beaches (#mybliss) and cute corgis in hats (#puppers) and crave-worthy waffles (#foodporn). But for Instagram to work there has to be a yin and yang: Both the person who curates an idealized version of themselves and the person who buys into that persona, hook, line, and sinker.
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Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) falls into the latter category. As the film begins, we find ourselves at a wedding that the bride is documenting on Instagram in real time—laughing photos of bridesmaids through a hazy filter and reveries about how #blessed she is to be marrying her best friend. The wedding is disrupted by a surly crasher—Ingrid—who proceeds to squirt mace in the bride’s face. Ingrid is upset that she wasn’t invited to the blessed event, even though the extent of her friendship with the bride was the exchange of a single pleasantry on Instagram. She’s promptly carted off to a mental institution. Her time spent there doesn’t seem to have the sufficiently curative effect, because shortly after being released, she homes in on her newest obsession: An southern-California based social media influencer Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen).
In case you’re not up on the jargon—yes, a social media influencer is a thing and yes, it’s as horrible as it sounds. Taylor is ostensibly a designer of some sort, but her real job is simply existing on Instagram—and brands pay her to endorse their products. Taylor’s brand is sun-kissed, boho, California chic—and Ingrid is mesmerized. She packs up her car and heads west, hoping to somehow insinuate her way into Taylor’s life.
Ingrid rents an apartment from an affable stoner named Dan Pinto (O’Shea Jackson, Ice Cube’s kid) who has his own obsession: Batman. He’s currently writing a new Batman script, but not the dark Christopher Nolan ones; he’s a Joel Schumacher guy.
Meanwhile, Ingrid’s plan to meet Taylor is as effective as it is diabolical—she steals Taylor’s Insta-cute dog and then pretends to be the hero who found it. Grateful, Taylor invites her inside for dinner, where Ingrid meets Taylor’s husband Ezra (Wyatt Russell), a “successful artist” who appropriates other people’s work and puts hashtags on them. (Ingrid buys a painting of a group of majestically running horses with the words #SquadGoals emblazoned on it.)
Ingrid’s obsession is such that she doesn’t even care when Taylor’s façade begins to chip away: Those on-brand books Taylor is always quoting? She hasn’t actually read them. Her husband? Before Ingrid, he had never sold a painting. And their marriage isn’t quite as stable as it seems.
The message of Ingrid Goes West is a fairly standard one—people aren’t what they seem on social media. But the execution is spot-on. Director Matt Spicer has obviously spent a lot of time lurking on Instagram pages and he gets the lingo, the forced fun, the desperate attempt to seem like you’re not desperate.
The cast is stellar—Ingrid is, objectively, a horrible person, but we feel for her anyway. “Be chill,” Ingrid chides herself, before her first encounter with Taylor. Her attempts to fit in with the cool crowd, to project a false air of breezy and carefree shallowness, is relatable to anyone who has ever endured high school. (After all, what is social media if not an extension of high school in the real world?) Plaza makes Ingrid’s unhinged desperation both a little scary and a lot heartbreaking. As for Olsen, she’s the perfect foil—utterly believable as a self-styled So-Cal princess. Russell, O’Shea, and Billy Magnusson, as Taylor’s cad of a brother, all do memorably strong work.
On Twitter, there was a bit of a debate: Is Ingrid Goes West a comedy? It has several laughs, but its characters and prevailing themes of the fragility of identify are sad. Still, the laughter comes from recognition, the film’s spot on reflection of the suspiciously perfect lives that are put out and consumed on the Internet. When you think about it, that really is kind of funny.