On paper, Ingrid Goes West seems like the kind of movie that should just #slay. In short, a hyper-talented cast tackles one of the most widespread (and cinematically unexplored) issues to emerge from the information age — the addictive nature of social media. The trailer suggests that the result is a no-punches-pulled darkish comedy inhabiting a space between the chthonic reaches of existential suffering and the drive to constantly update your feed with selfies, food pics and geotagged nature shots from that night hike last weekend with the besties.
If you’re like me, you’ve seen the movie’s trailer over the last few months and have been waiting for an oracle at Google to proclaim that this Millennial phantasmagoria is on a screen nearby. The execution delivers some of these components (but far from all) as a series of perfectly cringe-inducing episodes. The film is directed by newcomer Matt Spicer and stars Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation, The Little Hours) as Ingrid Thorburn, a young woman trying to cope with a devastating loss by connecting with new friends on Instagram. The film opens with Ingrid, sweating and panicked, scrolling through social media posts before burglarizing the wedding of her Insta-obsession. Ingrid maces the bride to avenge being left off the guest list. Thereafter, she is institutionalized for help with whatever psychic distress is pushing her to such drastic measures.
Following her release, the process begins anew. She reads a profile on LA fashionista and Instagram celebrity Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Godzilla), the perfect new girlcrush. Ingrid packs up her life in Nowhere, Pennsylvania with $60,000 from an inheritance and moves to LA. The goal: become Taylor’s BFF by any means necessary.
The first interactions between Ingrid and Taylor are one of the film’s highlights. Plaza plays the part with just the right amount of desperation. Viewers may titter with OMG panic at every failed lie and imperfect inflection Ingrid uses as weapons to claw her way into Taylor’s heart. Ingrid’s longing looks, which fall in the middle of the spectrum between “say you love me again” and “let me wear your skin,” perfectly encapsulate her infatuation. It’s a credit to Plaza that she oozes these passions with equal gusto whether through her whole body in Taylor’s presence, or with the communication between her eyes and the flick of her thumb while scrolling through the feed.
A Joshua Tree mini-vacay cements their friendship over margaritas and an eight-ball. These last two elements are unwittingly provided courtesy of Ingrid’s goofball landlord-cum-Batman screenwriter and would-be love interest Dan Pinto (played perfectly by O’Shea Jackson Jr., Straight Outta Compton).
One of the weaknesses, however, is that the stakes never quite break through toward the realms of “WTF am I watching???” that would support Ingrid’s desperation. With the Joshua Tree scene mentioned above, for instance, the gun’s neither used nor brought up again. Its presence in the movie feels like a holdover element from an earlier draft when Dan had some more nefarious career than a wannabe screenwriter, kept to add texture and danger to an otherwise intimate moment. I imagine a deleted scene at Joshua Tree, where Ingrid and Taylor are coming off the eight ball, woozy from the late hour and margaritas, and Taylor suggests they use an antelope carcass for target practice. Taylor handles the gun with perfect form and suggests a danger and a past life that she doesn’t want to talk about. Not one filled with danger, but a rural existence with the hallmarks of time-stopped Americana that she’s since shed for the life of a cosmopolitan social climber. The sheriff comes out and Taylor diffuses the situation with girlish flirting and selfie-taking. Or, better yet, as the cop drives up, she tries to gauge whether Ingrid would hook up with the cop to make the problem disappear. For real, why show me a gun if you aren’t going to shoot or at least lose it and create some complication?
Another moment of sustained exasperation comes with the arrival of Taylor’s brother Nicky (Billy Magnussen, Bridge of Spies, The Big Short). Ingrid puts up a wall when Nicky arrives, concerned that his three-week stay is going to put a damper on Ingrid-Taylor time. Immediately, Nicky seems to despise Ingrid. His actions are benign enough, childish pranks on the surface, but Magnusson issues every word with such venom and turns every glance into menace. There’s no question from the start that this is a hate-hate relationship. He’s a frat boy type who brags to his own sister about getting a handjob mid-flight from Charles de Gaulle to LAX. His interactions with Ingrid would feel more complete if there was some moment to spur his drive to bring about her devastation.
Unexplored potential aside, there is a deeper issue which casts Ingrid Goes West, for me at least, in a pale rather than neon light. Social media has changed since the cast and crew wrapped in 2016. The movie, as an engine, is fueled by the previous gen notion that social media is a mask or disguise. There’s a presumption of objective truth hidden within the characters’ glittering, glamorous feeds. Truth which, when strayed from, has consequences. It’s a puritanical approach to our online lives which might have worked last year, but seems like treacle today. Tomorrow, a tweet could theoretically bring two nations closer to nuclear war. Your uncle or cousin or parent could post or share literally fake news that makes your stomach curdle and literally damages your relationship with them. Social media in the Trump Age is a weapon to attack the notion of truth itself. This film is advertised as some kind of havoc-making farce which fails to deliver because the damage is too limited. I’m not trying to suggest the film is unenjoyable because it doesn’t address every issue of our social media use (I had fun). There are philosophical shortcomings here that should be verbalized and embraced as other filmmakers take on social media.
Overall, Ingrid Goes West is worth seeing. You’ll probably laugh. You’ll leave with reaffirmed appreciations for Aubrey Plaza and O’Shea Jackson Jr. Just be prepared for a hollow incarnation of the American carnage suggested by the beat-dropping, gonzo trailer.
Clayton Schuster (@SchusterClayton) is a writer in the San Francisco Bay Area. He bleeds words about arts and culture for Vague Visages, Hyperallergic, Hi-Frictose, Midnight Pulse and other outlets. He is also a screenwriter for Lunaventure Productions and has a book on art feuds out in 2018 with Schiffer Publications. If he’s not reading or writing, then chances are he’s being bullied around by his Formosan Mountain Dog named Willow.