Ingrid Goes West is more a dark psychological thriller than a comedy. It is funny; it is after all meant to be a satire of the social media obsession gripping our society. But more than anything you find yourself gripping the arms of your seat and clenching your teeth with deep empathetic anxiety.
Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) has issues. At the beginning of the film, we see her scrolling desperately through a friend’s Instagram feed. The friend is getting married, and she neglected to invite Ingrid.
Ingrid’s eyes search the feed in vain for some kind of reason. Finally, she jumps out of her car, crashes the wedding, and sprays the bride with pepper spray. As she leaves, she is tackled and then committed to a psychiatric hospital.
The screenwriters Matt Spicer and David Branson Smith do a wonderful job of introducing Ingrid to us as a character fully formed. Or as fully formed as someone like Ingrid can be. Spicer, who is also the director, wastes little time in telling the audience through visuals and background dialogue all we need to know about Ingrid.
Her mother has recently died. She was sick for a long time, and Ingrid took care of her. We also learn that the woman who she peppered spray has given her a restraining order as well as the fact that Ingrid had been stalking her.
Ingrid has issues. She passes for normal but just barely. In times of slight distress the facade breaks. Ingrid is a Rupert Pupkin of the modern age.
She wants love, friends, a certain amount of notoriety. The problem is she doesn’t want to have to do any of the groundwork for any of it. Ingrid wants instant friends. She wants to belong without bearing any of the vulnerability people do when they form bonds.
Through serendipitous happenstance, Ingrid is willed sixty thousand dollars shortly before reading an article about Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen). Ingrid then begins to stalk Taylor. She moves to LA to be near her, hangs out at the places she’s liked until eventually, she finds her.
Spicer and Smith are sure to make clear that Ingrid is not well. They are clear that all of her actions are not healthy actions. The troubling thing is when some of the things she does seem so commonplace today. When Ingrid is added to Taylor’s Instagram account, she immediately sets about liking every picture. When she makes a comment she edits, re-edits, erases, and starts all over to just to type a single line.
Our empathy for Ingrid comes from seeing little tiny pieces of ourselves in what she does. She wants to get just right, for the first impression to be that of ‘coolness’ or ‘witty.’ The difference is she’s willing to kidnap Taylor’s dog so she can call and pretend she found it.
Aubrey Plaza gives one of the most daring performances of the year so far. Ingrid is a character who can’t play to the audience. Yet, if she goes too far and alienates us, then the movie collapses. Plaza walks the fine line of playing a somewhat sociopath while still trying to make us feel for her without condoning her. The tension in the movie comes from how well Plaza walks this tightrope.
Taylor is a perfect counter balance to Ingrid. She’s a character begging for the audience to love her. Her Instagram account is trendy, full of references of Didion and Mailer, and everything is ‘the best.’ A trend setter whose more advertisement than trendy. After all, we learn she hasn’t even read the Mailer book she claims is her favorite.
Olsen plays Taylor not as a soulless, vapid manipulator but as someone who in her own way is trying to have friends. There’s a warmth yet a need to keep a distance. She’s shallow and vain, but it never comes off as mean. It’s more self-entitlement than anything. Whatever her faults may be she doesn’t deserve Ingrid’s intrusions.
Unlike Ingrid, Taylor has some relationships she has come by honestly. Her husband Ezra (Wyatt Russell) is a struggling artist and her brother Nicky (Billy Mannussen) a globe trotting coke head. They are the people who know her offline and still love her.
On her quest to become Taylor’s best friend Ingrid accidentally makes an actual one in Dan (O’Shea Jackson Jr.). Dan is her landlord, a screenwriter, and self-confessed Batman fanatic. Dan legitimately likes Ingrid, or at least the Ingrid he’s allowed to see.
Jackson as a Batman obsessed vaper is a genius creation. At one one point when Ingrid has convinced Dan to help her kidnap Nicky and take him out to the desert, he has second thoughts. Ingrid argues that “It’s what Batman would do.” Jackson’s indignant response is both so sincere and rational, to Dan, it’s hilarious.
In her obsessive quest to be Taylor’s best friend she accidentally makes what is for Ingrid, the first honest connection since her mother died. When the cracks in her facade begin to form Dan cuts ties until Ingrid makes overtures of apologies for her actions. These are not sincere overtures, she needs Dan and will use Dan, but she does actually like Dan.
There is a scene after Ingrid and Dan go on a date where she dresses up as Catwoman. Plaza’s awkward attempt to play a character she has no earthly idea about is sweet, funny, and distressing. It’s distressing because Dan is the only person in the movie who is honest about who he is. This isn’t meant to be erotic. It’s a sad and creepy example of how one woman is trying to fake a connection while another person is deeply feeling it. The tragedy is neither of them are.
Ingrid Goes West is so well constructed and executed that even its failure to deal honestly with Ingrid in its third act isn’t enough to derail it entirely. Smith and Spicer opt for a more satirical and narratively pointed ending rather than any kind of emotional complex one. It doesn’t cheat in any real way.
Ingrid’s problems are real, and there’s no real resolution or promise of help for her. We’re left instead with a somewhat predictable ending that services the need for a neat and somewhat tidy ending in where Ingrid is rewarded for her actions as opposed to being treated for them.
Ingrid Goes West leaves us with a queasy feeling. Smith and Spicer have made a sharp and intelligent jab at the eagerness of ‘likes’ and ‘loves’ that pervade our online culture. We shouldn’t blame Ingrid though she just needs help. Ingrid isn’t the satirical mirror; it’s Taylor.