Ingrid Goes West has one the most shockingly funny cold opens of any movie I’ve ever seen. I won’t spoil it. But if you’ve ever poked through other people’s social media posts and marveled at the sunny perfection of their lives — compared to the shit show that is your own — you’ll relate.
Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) uses Instagram as her social media platform of choice. Apparently, the app is a perpetual river of beautiful pictures and witty commentary, all featuring perfect sunsets, weddings, friends, careers, and craftwork, with #Blessed showing up in every other post. I’ve never used Instagram myself. But I do use Facebook, which can have much the same effect. Like most people, I imagine, I’ve learned to remember that, in reality, the lives behind those selfies are as imperfect and screwed up as mine.
It quickly becomes apparent that Ingrid’s problem goes far deeper than a mere failure to maintain that perspective. She lives through Instagram, and can’t imagine her own life as valuable except on Instagram’s terms. She needs to compulsively befriend — and eventually become — the people who are already awash in followers and adoring comments.
After the events of the first scene briefly land Ingrid in a psychiatric ward, she returns to her life and her smartphone. A magazine spread introduces her to Taylor (Elizabeth Olsen), a Los Angeles resident whose Instagram feed is wonder of high-class rustic organic urban living. Ingrid is instantly hooked. She agonizes over comments to leave on Taylor’s photos, rewriting several times, picking different emojis, etc. Then Taylor leaves a brief-but-friendly response, revealing the name of her favorite local eatery. And with that, Ingrid is off to Los Angeles.
Thanks to the recent death of her mother, Ingrid has a large inheritance. She cashes it out, and uses the money to rent a small apartment. Her landlord and next door neighbor is Dan (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), an affable pothead and aspiring screenwriter with a deep love for all things Batman. He immediately takes a liking to Ingrid, but she’s too busy plotting her way into Taylor’s life to notice.
Ingrid tracks down Taylor’s restaurant, eventually locating the woman herself, and follows her home. From there, Ingrid kidnaps Taylor’s dog, then returns the pup once the “missing” posters go up. That gains the trust of Taylor and her husband (Wyatt Russell), and they invite Ingrid over for dinner. From there, Ingrid’s slow insinuation into Taylor’s life begins.
The script, by David Branson Smith and Matt Spicer, is workman-like, subtle, sly, and very funny. It flirts with the psychological thriller genre (snatching the dog is one of the less sociopathic stunts Ingrid pulls), but it never tips over. But the comedy is dark and the character study is absolutely brutal. Taylor passes off her husband as a successful artist, but it becomes apparent he’s nothing of the sort. He later laments to Ingrid that he misses the old Taylor, before the move to Los Angeles and the lure of internet fame changed her. Then there’s Nicky (Billy Magnussen), Taylor’s utter cad of a brother, who appeals to his sibling’s vanity with his own connections to fame. Nicky is every bit as cruel and far more intelligent than he appears. He’s the one who sets in motion the events that unravel Ingrid’s deceits.
The only person who comes off mostly unscathed here is Dan, who endures enormous amounts on Ingrid’s account and yet remains willing to care for her. Jackson Jr.’s performance hits the sweet spot, painting Dan as generous without letting him come off as a fool. The film also introduces a smart ambiguity into Dan and Ingrid’s relationship: it’s never clear if Ingrid learns to return Dan’s affections. There’s a particular scene involving a Catwoman suit that could be interpreted as an act of big-heartedness on Ingrid’s part, but it could also be merely for the furtherance of her schemes.
If Ingrid Goes West has a flaw, it’s not knowing quite what to do with its protagonist. On the one hand, the film wants to present Ingrid as a stand-in for the poisonous relationship we can all develop with social media. On the other hand, its comedy and narrative structure require it to present Ingrid as someone so deeply damaged she stands apart from normal behavior. Smith and Spicer, the latter of whom also directs, never quite figure out how to resolve this tension. But Plaza herself is well suited to the character: detached, acerbic, and with a lazy intelligence. She also transcends that comfort zone a bit, digging into and embodying Ingrid’s ugliness and humanity.
The film is well-paced, not too long, and sharply crafted. Spicer’s direction and the cinematography by Bryce Fortner are effective but unobtrusive. The best visual moments observe Ingrid in close-up, her hollow eyes bathed in the sickly light of her smartphone, desperately searching for that next ephemeral hit of affirmation.
I wouldn’t go so far as to call Ingrid Goes West grim, but it is a tough film. Spicer and Smith bravely deny their audience a conclusive character arc. Ingrid is saved, but whether she is redeemed is another matter. You could arguably watch the film on repeat, the catharsis of the climax bleeding right into the crisis of the beginning, in an endless loop of hashtags, emojis, and false connections on and on forever.