Overview: After the death of her mother, Ingrid decides to travel West and become friends with a young woman she follows on Instagram. Neon; 2017; Rated R; 97 minutes.
Tastemakers: Ingrid Goes West, director and co-writer Matt Spicer’s first feature length film, is remarkably specific, a millennial’s film, largely in the best sense; it is slickly made, full to the brim with cultural references and irony but also remains emotionally vulnerable and sincere. Ingrid Goes West avoids being broad parody or a mean-spirited of youthful naiveté in general, and instead integrates the amount of contemporary detail that grounds its characters and story in a specific cultural milieu. Its specificity is so well-crafted that I wonder what would be made of this film years from now. (Will avocado toast or top knots have the same, if any, cultural impact in a decade?)
Ingrid Thorburn (Aubrey Plaza) comes across social media influencer Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen) on Instagram soon after the death of her mother. Ingrid decides, despite having recently stalked another subject of Internet obsession to ruinous result, to follow Taylor across the country to Los Angeles, where she manufactures a “chance” meeting and close friendship between the two. As more people within Taylor’s world are brought into the picture, such as Taylor’s brother Nicky (Billy Magnussen) and Cool Fashion Girl Harley Chung (Pom Klementieff) Ingrid becomes more insecure and her actions more unhinged as she desperately tries to avoid the loneliness and grief she doesn’t want to face.
If this film is a comedy, it is certainly a dark one, oscillating between near-slapstick and psychological drama. But its tonal variations highlight both the tragedy and absurdity of the current contradictions in the way social media is used to manufacture identity and purpose. The quintessential millennial version of the American dream is shown to be attractive, rooted in presenting an air of positivity, but is ultimately unhealthy, hollow, and unobtainable. In Ingrid Goes West, this exploration is delivered in a tight, well-paced package, with characters whose behavior packs an emotional punch. While some characters weaken these stronger elements, the success of both the comedic and dramatic elements of the film allow this film to be both a narrowly specific examination of our current social media environment and a more universal exploration of loneliness and obsession.
Single White Female: When this film is funny, it’s hysterical, but when it is dramatic, it’s heartbreaking. Ingrid’s loneliness and lack of comfort in social settings, even once she has earned Taylor’s affection is difficult to watch. It is constantly subverting itself, undercutting what could be uncomplicatedly comedic or simply positive by its context; Ingrid’s glamorous Los Angeles makeover is not triumphant but desperate, and every sweet moment between Ingrid and Taylor is undercut by Ingrid’s ever-present instability.
The death of Ingrid’s mother and Ingrid’s grief is unfortunately underexplored. It is implied that her mother was Ingrid’s only friend, and it seems as though her death and the loneliness it caused instigated this type of obsessive, maladaptive behavior from Ingrid. As such, it would seem the grief she feels would have warranted more attention. Despite this, Ingrid as a person feels well-rounded and complex despite the absurdity of her actions. Ingrid’s obsession is borne of a combination of grief, stunted social skills and the universal human struggle to find both friendship and identity. These overlapping struggles are amplified by what our social media encourages in terms of manufacturing one’s own image, and the unfortunate emotional distance and lack of true connection this allows.
Ingrid Goes West pulls off the tonal variation in large part because the biting, tragic edge of the humor is that we as the audience live in this reality, and most of us partake of it, feed into it to some extent. There is both humor and tragedy in contradiction—we know that much of the empty admiration we receive from it is hollow but it feels productive and earned regardless. Like Ingrid, we foster relationships that will elevate us rather than those that may not elevate our careers but would be more emotionally fulfilling. Ingrid ignores, mistreats, and uses Dan Pinto (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), who she not only met naturally but is also sincere, caring and interested in Ingrid’s safety and happiness. She ignores the only friend she is shown to have for the sake of relationships she knows are built on lies. While Ingrid’s relationship with Dan could have been better established, his sweetness and consistent authenticity allows for a nuanced and effective foil to the false figures with whom Ingrid chooses to obsess, adds to the overall irony and tragedy and permeates the film.
Some of the dialogue, as the dramatic stakes are raised, can be a bit trite at times, more by-the-books than the film calls for. Most broadly drawn and the character whose actions push the film’s story slightly too far over the line toward silly and narratively weak is Magnussen’s Nicky, who becomes a villain too cartoonish for the film’s already jarring tonal swings, too simple an obstacle for a film that wants to explore the nuanced issues with social media.
#IAmIngrid: All the characters, to varying degrees, are shown to be insecure, delusional, and socially stunted. Nicky has his party boy persona to hide his drug addiction and empty personality, Taylor has her perfectly curated Internet existence to hide her lonely sorority girl origins, and Taylor’s husband Ezra (Wyatt Russell) has his steadfast rejection of social media and selling out to hide the lack of success of his hackneyed pop art and resentment of his wife. Although these people appear to be better adjusted to adulthood than Ingrid, they are all searching for meaning and identity in the 21st Century and falling short.
None of the Los Angeles crowd is doing very much, for example, in terms of employment. Dan, Ingrid’s landlord and an aspiring screenwriter, is seemingly the only one of the main cast who both has a steady job and has the genuine desire to create something. The others seemingly spend the day creating an image and amassing the markers of cultural capital, identifying themselves with various elements of their personality rather than being productive or even genuine. This is the life that social media’s gratification has told them to pursue, and although they have been left wanting by this life’s lack of true happiness, they have no idea how else to pursue success and move beyond it.
Ingrid Goes West sheds light on the lies we both tell and believe via social media, and allows for us as people rooted in its reality to feel sympathy for its main characters despite the absurdity of their actions. Notable to me is the film’s lack of a simple ending. Ingrid is mentally unstable when the film begins and is mentally unstable when it ends. This film does not claim to have the solution, to moralize or claim that rejecting social media completely should be Ingrid’s goal, or ours. Ingrid’s stay at a mental institution at the beginning of the film could not help her, her integration into Los Angeles society could not help her, and her discovery that social media is false could not help her.
When Ingrid gains the viral social media attention she craves, through a tragedy I won’t spoil here, her response is conflicted. She is pulled between feeling gratified by the outpour of admiration for her and the knowledge she has that it is ultimately false. This leaves us with a grimly open ending, one that makes up for some of the lack of exploration of Ingrid’s grief earlier on. Although she has uncovered the façade of an online persona and the way her pursuit of a false life to assuage her emotional anguish, her feelings of loneliness persist. Rejecting social media is not shown to be a solution for anguish, just as social media fame is not a solution for unhappiness. Terrifying and heartbreaking, the film’s final moments leave her struggle for interpersonal relationships without a simple end.
Overall: Ingrid Goes West avoids being a broad parody by using detail and specificity of time and location. Sympathetically drawn characters ground its story, and despite tonal whiplash that may not be for everyone and a villain whose actions feel shoehorned in, Ingrid Goes West provides emotional gut punches, and is critical but not mean-spirited toward the millennial generation and our neuroses, struggles, and pain.
Featured Image: Neon