Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Elizabeth Olsen, O'Shea Jackson Jr., Wyatt Russell, Billy Magnussen
Director: Matt Spicer
Running time: 1 hour 37 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
The opening shot of Matt Spicer's debut feature, Ingrid Goes West, is telling. A woman sits in her car, face smeared with makeup, tears, and vengeful spite as she frantically scrolls through her iPhone "favoring" various Instagram photos of what looks to be a lovely wedding. The woman in question is Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) and the act of violence that follows is indicative of her psychological and emotional state as well as the tone Spicer will be attempting to modulate. The moment where she maces the beautiful bride, calls her an awful name, and is eventually tackled by a guest, is both wryly funny and unnerving. As a film, Ingrid Goes West also has one finger on the rib cage and the other on the constant scroll of social media obsession.
This incident, we learn, isn't exactly isolated. After the death of her mother, Ingrid inherited $60,000 and without any discernible friends or responsibilities, sought fulfillment through her fixation on Instagram celebrities. The bride was one such "friend", while another comes in the form of Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), a Southern California entrepreneur and social media personality whose fashion-forward, aesthetically pleasing Instagram posts draw Ingrid in like a moth to the flame. As a coping mechanism for grief and loneliness, the promise of widespread connection via the Internet is unquestionably tantalizing, and the early scenes in Ingrid Goes West exploits the dichotomy of finding community alone through the flicker of brightly-lit screens. With a jaunty score, deft editing, and Plaza's uncanny ability to wring emotional truth out of Ingrid's suffocating isolation, Spicer's film initially seems like a playful satire on the vapidness of this kind of facile culture. The truth, however, is much more interesting and ultimately cunning, as the picture moves from winking deconstruction into the realm of neo-noir psychosis; eventually landing somewhere closer to a heartfelt examination of our global need for intimacy.
As Ingrid heads for Venice Beach in search of her #blessed online bff, there's the sense that her search will end in extreme disappointment, or worse yet, a trip back the mental ward. Moving into an apartment near Taylor's pad (where she lives with her dog and hipster artist husband), Ingrid's lone acquaintance seems to be her landlord, Dan (O'Shea Jackson Jr.), who comes to visit with vape pen and "screenwriter for hire" business cards in hand. In one of the film's lazier bits of writing, Dan is posited as a lovable nerd obsessed with Batman who dreams of writing the next major movement in the Caped Crusader's cinematic canon. Despite this annoying character quirk, Jackson Jr. makes the character work through sheer charisma and laid back charm alone. His scenes with Plaza, who initially wants nothing to do with his company, are keenly played for comedic effect and genuine pathos by both performers.
Even though 90's female-fronted revenge noir vehicles like Single White Female are evoked throughout (there's even a line of dialogue drawing that specific connection), Ingrid Goes West is a film aimed squarely at millennials who are on the one hand, too cool for social media conventions, while on the other, liberally indulging in them. As Ingrid begins copying Taylor's favorite things; coffee shops, clothes, restaurants, hairdresser, etc, the inevitable meeting of the two women seems poised for disaster. Surprisingly, Spicer chooses to not only humanize Taylor, but also draw the mismatched pair into a charged friendship, even if such a connection is based on very little pertaining to reality. Taylor is a shallow fraud, but also undeniably recognizable, and the bonding scenes between Olsen and Plaza are convincing insomuch as they direct us to the ways in which most connections formulate nowadays. Taylor's husband, Ezra (Wyatt Russell) is also a recognizable figure; the supposed high-minded artist who shoves his nose at the banal conventions of social media whoring, but whose art consists entirely of found objects with hashtags sprayed over them.
Ultimately, Ingrid Goes West stumbles slightly in its final third after Taylor's obnoxious brother, Nicky (Billy Magnussen) is introduced as a foil to the girl's budding friendship. Shirtless, coked up, and wearing tight shorts, Nicky is sadly also a recognizable character, but not in the ways the film would have you believe. Certainly, the sting of oblivious white privilege is intentional here, but Spicer simply uses Nicky as a plot device en route to a zany blackmailing plot, complete with a botched kidnapping. As the film dovetails into psychological madness, Ingrid herself goes off the rails in a way that feels contrived, if not for the sublime work of Plaza. Her acting here allows for one to reconsider past roles--those vacant-eyes, the sharp-tongued sarcasm, that closed off emotional component--are all brought to bear, but she also plunges headlong into the darker elements of her character in a way which feels revelatory.
Not even a rather trite ending, complete with a viral-tinged twist, can completely take away from a shrewd distillation of how we are living now. Instead of simply lampooning the time we waste staring into our phones, or wagging a finger at damn millennials, Spicer recognizes how these things are wholly imbedded into daily life. The trick is understanding that identity exists irrespective of social media traps, and that even someone like Ingrid can find relief in knowing that she can love and be loved, if only for a moment as the world keeps scrolling.