Social media has long been demonized for its celebration of egoism and vanity, with condescending criticisms of social media even permeating television and film, from the heavy-handed commentary of “Black Mirror” to the cliched critique of “Nerve.” Matt Spicer’s feature debut “Ingrid Goes West,” a dark comedy satire of influencer culture and the lifestyle aesthetics that flourish there, manages to take on Instagram celebrity without falling into the usual trappings of films centered on social media. The dark comedy blends biting contemporary satire with fine-tuned character studies, showcasing insights of online behavior and the ability of social media to pull out the worst in people.
Aubrey Plaza plays the titular Ingrid, a lonely, unstable, Instagram-obsessed young woman who conflates likes and comments with real connection. When Ingrid is first introduced to the audience, she is crashing the wedding of a high-school classmate. A mace incident, restraining order and brief stint in a mental hospital later, Ingrid finds her new fixation: social media influencer Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen). A young, beautiful woman who constantly posts about her picture-perfect California life with her artist husband Ezra (Wyatt Russell), she’s the kind of neo-hippie who is unironically #blessed whenever she scores a new vintage find.
Using the inheritance from her recently deceased mother, Ingrid travels to California to find and befriend Taylor. She rents an apartment from Dan (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and, after executing more than a few morally dubious schemes, ingrains herself into Taylor’s life.
She becomes predictably possessive when Taylor’s obnoxious brother Nicky (Billy Magnussen) comes to town and immediately sees through Ingrid’s façade. After going through her phone, Nicky blackmails Ingrid, setting an inevitable dark third-act pivot into motion. While the ending takes some dark narrative turns that never fully hit, Spicer still manages to surprise viewers.
Spicer’s commentary is aimed at both those who curate their lives for the attention of others and those who believe that curation to be reality. The idea of projecting the perfect image has long been a large motivation for people’s behavior, and the main commentary of the film is rooted in the studied vapidity of Taylor Sloane.
At first, Taylor seems to be the quintessential cool girl of her Instagram feed, but the more we learn about her, the less special she seems. Her impressive social media image gives way to the reality of her life, and we see that she is creating a façade every bit as phony as Ingrid’s. Spicer looks past the obvious criticisms of Instagram celebrities and instead pulls out the inauthenticity and loneliness that comes from living a life performed for online consumption.
It’s evident that Spicer cares just as much about curating his characters as he does about his social commentary; the film is at its best when it focuses on its characters and the performances that bring them to life. Russell shines as the charming, possibly alcoholic hippie husband; Olsen nails the essence of a social media influencer without seeming gimmicky. Jackson Jr. steals every scene, giving a hilarious and charismatic performance as Ingrid’s landlord Dan Pinto, a stoner screenwriter with an affinity for Batman.
Plaza deftly balances unhinged comedy and vulnerability, but the film’s third act struggles as Ingrid’s desperation to be Taylor’s best friend escalates into depravity. With a final scene that never fully resolves itself, the depth of Ingrid’s psyche is never fully developed.
In order to befriend Taylor, Ingrid steals a dog, wrecks a car and plans a kidnapping — all in the name of friendship. Despite all this, she manages to come across as eerily accessible and sympathetic; Plaza centers every one of Ingrid’s terrible actions on her thirst for connection. What’s sad about Ingrid isn’t that she wants a friend — it’s that she only wants to be friends with the most popular girl in town. Plaza layers her performance of Ingrid with sadness and empathy, reminding us that we’re all a bit like her — after all, who hasn’t spent a little too long taking that Instagram photo or retyped a caption one too many times?