“No one is as happy as they seem on Instagram, as depressed as they seem on Twitter, or as insufferable as they seem on Facebook.”
If you’re reading this review, odds are you’ve probably stumbled across that cute axiom (or one of its interchangeable variations) at some point or another in the years since the world submitted itself to the emotional slaughterhouse that is social media. And if you’ve ever had an Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook account of your own, odds are you know just how true that truism tends to be. And yet, for some reason, it still needs to be said. Everybody curates their own image on the internet, but we’re all so good at it that nobody remembers.
As Vonnegut once wrote: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” That guy died three years before Instagram was even invented, but he had more to say about it than Matt Spicer does in his banal but enjoyably brash debut feature, “Ingrid Goes West.”
Spicer’s film tells the bleakly satirical story of an Aubrey Plaza-like girl named Ingrid Thorburn (Aubrey Plaza), a mentally ill twentysomething whose psychoses are spelled out through social media like ink through a pen. Unwell from the start, Ingrid is introduced as she obsessively “likes” her way through another girl’s wedding photos. Her indiscriminate approval isn’t a good look, but the really unsettling thing about it is that the wedding Ingrid is seeing through her feed is still in progress, and she’s sitting in the parking lot, uninvited and unhinged.
A mace incident and a restraining order later, and Ingrid is in need of a new fixation. That’s when she happens upon a story about social media influencer Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen) while leafing through the pages of an “Elle.” Beautiful and blonde, Taylor is the kind of L.A. neo-hippie who takes photos of her food and unironically uses “#blessed” to describe her fortune at finding a cute new dress. She lives in a glass house with her artist husband (“22 Jump Street” breakout Wyatt Russell), dreams of buying a place in Joshua Tree, and seems altogether insufferable.
Ingrid naturally wants to wear her skin like Buffalo Bill. So when her mom dies, leaving Ingrid with $60,000 in cash, our heroine knows exactly how to spend it: By driving out to Los Angeles, blowing her money on an apartment she rents from a sweet-hearted Batman fanatic named Dan Pinto (O’Shea Jackson Jr., stealing every scene he’s in), and becoming Taylor’s best friend. Chaos ensues.
To Spicer’s credit, his film avoids the temptation to become “Single White Female” with a cell phone. That’s been done, and the first-time director (working from a script he co-wrote with David Branson Smith) has more ambitious, more skewered, more unwieldy ideas on his mind. Inviting too many comparisons for such a singularly modern satire should, “Ingrid Goes West” feels more like a millennial riff on “The King of Comedy” than it does anything else, the film is at its best when mocking us for how we’ve taken incredible technology and used it to make commercials for our own lives.
The scenes between Plaza and Olsen are sharp and specific — Spicer certainly knows his way around these people — and the movie is smart enough to recognize how dull it would be to just chip away at Taylor’s perfect veneer for 90 minutes. Nothing helps sustain interest so much as Ingrid’s utter unwillingness to see through her new BFF’s flimsy facade, even if the script is derailed by all of the obstacles that it throws in her way (chief among them being Taylor’s insane, jacked, and insanely jacked brother, played by Billy Magnussen).
But this sporadically funny movie is far more successful when it’s angling for easy laughs then when it’s trying to steer them towards social commentary. Spicer’s attempts to muddy the waters and reorient our sympathies are weak at best, and often troublesome. Yes, Ingrid is a sympathetic character — we’re all a little bit like her, we’ve all looked at a social snapshot of someone’s life and wished we could tap into it, we’ve all taken the bait that other people put out there in the first place — but it’s shaky territory when you start conflating the effects of social media with genuine mental illness.
It’s not that Ingrid is naive or new to digital technology; she’s a disturbed individual whose mother’s death has triggered a series of psychoses that just happened to manifest themselves through Instagram. The movie is very confused on that point, much less sure of itself when sussing through Ingrid’s damage than when it is diagnosing Taylor’s. Shot in gorgeously anamorphic widescreen (with the saturation slider about halfway to 100), the look of the film says more about the world these girls inhabit than the script ever does.
“Ingrid Goes West” is colorful and flippant enough that it can survive a lot of its more senseless developments, but the movie never digs beneath the most obvious layers of its L.A. stereotypes. Americans have long been enthralled by the idea of projecting the perfect image (Jon Hamm starred in a phenomenal television show about this), and deranged people have always used that as fuel for their twisted fantasies. The difference now is that the products don’t complete our lives, our lives complete the products. “Ingrid Goes West” knows that from the start, but it sells itself short.
“Ingrid Goes West” premiered in the U.S. Dramatic Competition category at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Neon will release it later this year.