It’s “Single White Female” for the Instagram age: A lonely, delusional young woman (Aubrey Plaza) travels to California to befriend an Insta-famous glamazon (Elizabeth Olsen), whose polished life looks like a flawlessly curated “Explore” page.
Such goes the premise of “Ingrid Goes West,” a dark comedy written by Matt Spicer that plumbs the many-layered depths of our society’s fascination with social media. Firstly, it pokes fun at Instagram and the people who use it. Some of the funniest moments come when the characters’ lives reach new poser-y heights, like when Joan Didion gets quoted in an Instagram caption, or when one of its main characters names her dog Rothko. But it’s also a contemplative exploration of the way we brand ourselves online and the implications this has on those around us.
“Ingrid Goes West” opens with, of course, Instagram images accompanied by a voice-over of the captions (emojis and hashtags included) and cuts between shots of Plaza in a dark room, her face illuminated by the ghostly glow of her screen. Two minutes later, she’s spraying a bride with pepper spray, black makeup streaming down her face, and subsequently being escorted out of the wedding. The next time we see Ingrid, she’s being released from a psychiatric hospital, arriving at a home occupied predominantly by an empty hospital bed and lacking a plan or ambitions for her future. (We soon learn that her mother has recently died.) It’s not long before she sets off in pursuit of her newest victim: Taylor Sloane.
Taylor can essentially be described as an “influencer,” a term that has come to define the bevy of tanned, toned, stylish women whose feeds—full of top-down shots of avocado toast, meticulously styled succulent arrangements, and smoothie bowls toasting a background of sunny palm trees—have become something of a source of revenue for them. Brands send influencers free products on the basis that they’ll post images of themselves using said products. Their followers then buy products and thus capitalism plods on in its signature cyclical nature. According to an article on The Cut, who interviewed several real-world influencers about the realism of Taylor’s character, the film only slightly exaggerates her traits. The film has each photo look just the right amount of cute and breezy (and, ironically, effortless) and mocks the ridiculous amount of effort it ironically took to create.
Ingrid uses information from Taylor’s Instagram (and a dog-napping stint) to ingratiate herself with the influencer, quickly becoming her new BFF and gaining Instagram followers as she does so. Along the way, she meets a host of characters that accompany her as she slowly and secretly descends into utter insanity. There’s Dan (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), the only character she doesn’t meet through Taylor. Dan is a Batman-obsessed, constantly vaping landlord who turns out to be a somewhat flat character, initially intrigued and somewhat enamored by Ingrid despite her manipulative ways, and eventually frustrated by her obsession with Taylor and her fakeness. What Dan never does, though, is get Ingrid to put her phone down, and convince her that her life outside of Instagram is worth investing in. He’s the most authentic character in the film, but lets Ingrid’s social media obsession steamroll him; he ultimately fails to get her attention toward reality and away from the likes and comments.
There’s also Ezra (Wyatt Russell), Taylor’s husband, who she’s convinced to quit his job in order to paint horrifically kitsch replicas of classical paintings overlain with phrases like “SQUAD.” (Can you hear Clement Greenberg rolling over in his grave?) And there’s Nicky (Billy Magnussen), her consistently coked-out brother who ultimately pioneers Ingrid’s demise by stealing her phone and blackmailing her to keep her stalker-like antics hidden. When Taylor makes a new friend and her attention toward Ingrid dwindles, Ingrid becomes increasingly psychotic, spiraling further into her obsessive ways and culminating in a somewhat predictable plot twist that packs the perfect punch: a chillingly dark and eerily realistic moment.
“Ingrid Goes West” is a smart and haunting exploration of the way that loneliness works in the age of social media. For some, it’s magnified. (Has anyone else woken up after a perfectly pleasant night at home, only to wish they’d met up with friends after seeing those 3 a.m Snapchat stories?) For others, social media offers the chance to veil loneliness, or rather, to veil any and all kinks in the tricky web of their social life. If the night looked fun in pictures, who really cares how it actually went? It takes these two phenomena to their ultimate extremes, portraying one incredibly lonely woman who uses social media as a crutch for her crippling isolation and borderline psychosis; and another whose life, despite the fact that it’s met its Instagram quota for colorful health food and cactus hashtags, is actually just as complicated and flawed as anyone else’s.
“Ingrid Goes West” also takes the time (mainly at the end) to examine our obsession with authenticity: the #nomakeup and #nofilter trends, the claim that while others are curating their lives on Instagram, some girls are showing their “true selves” (which, of course, garners more likes and followers), and the paradoxical way that this decision often serves as just another ploy to garner said likes and followers.
The one area in which the film wavers is that it hasn’t seemed to decide what’s bad and what’s okay. Is Ingrid a mere victim of the malicious ways of Instagram, or does she simply lack the strength and integrity to put down her phone and live her life? It mirrors society’s general indecision in the realm of social media: Can we use it intelligently to do good, or are we so addicted that we’re letting it control our lives? Social media can bring people together in support of one another, but it can also enhance loneliness and prevent us from having authentic, meaningful relationships. “Ingrid Goes West” doesn’t offer answers, but by posing the questions, it’s framing an oft-discussed phenomenon in a refreshing and contemplative way. Plus, it will make you think twice before you Instagram another cactus.