Bittersweet has rarely felt more apt a description than in the case of Ingrid Goes West, a film both painfully sour in its bitterness and poignantly sweet in its aesthetic. Pitch black humour might make for a biting satire but, in Matt Spicer’s hands, this comes not at the expense of heartbreaking emotional resonance. You’ll never ‘follow’ social media in the same way again.
The twenty-first century world speaks with a touchpad tongue. It’s the old vocabulary but with new instagrammatical rules and structure; codas which can change at alarming rapidity for those inside and out of the worldwide social media clique. This is no new phenomenon of course, when have people not feared change? What stands Spicer’s cautionary directorial debut apart from science fiction precedents like Blade Runner or Metropolis, is the pervading sense that the horror of this on-screen reality is no depiction of a plausible future but a reflection of a perfectly possible present.
The problem with modern satire is always the liability faced towards being left behind as technology advances. Today’s contemporary is tomorrow’s yesterday, as James Ponsoldt discovered with his instantly dated adaptation of Dave Eggers’ The Circle. By contrast, thanks to a brilliant central turn by Aubrey Plaza, and a scabrous script from Spicer and David Branson Smith, Ingrid Goes West should ensure a degree of longevity as a psychological study of the lonely mind. Certainly, at least to the end of its run.
A synopsis somewhere between Clueless and Black Mirror’s ‘Nosedive’ sees Plaza plays Ingrid, a young woman of clear mental instability who reshapes her identity in developing obsessional, unrequited ‘relationships’ with similarly aged women she follows on the photo-sharing app Instagram and adopting the jargon of that world. The film opens with a distraught Ingrid streaming through the all-too-believable live blogged wedding photos of Charlotte, who captions herself as: ‘Happy to be sharing this day with all my favourite humans #blessed’, before storming the reception and pepper-spraying the bride.
A short stop in therapy follows but it is not long before Ingrid is discharged to the real world, with phone and fixations restored, where she soon comes across insta-influencer Taylor (Elisabeth Olson), a social media mogul whose utopian life in California is photographically splayed across Instagram, ready to be consumed by eager followers. Those more world savvy might see through the façade but Ingrid, we learn, is still grieving the recent death of her mother and takes the bait.
Using the $60k inheritance left to her, Ingrid seizes the opportunity to ‘go west’ and manipulate her way into Taylor’s life, stealing her look, tastes and dog. It’s a ploy that works brilliantly for Ingrid but in such a way that every lie deepens the hole she digs, to uncomfortable effects enhanced by a string plucked soundtrack from Jonathan Sadoff and Nick Thorbun. Best-friendship being a fickle thing, Taylor grows tired of her puppy-eyed devotee and, through neglect, resurrects the green filtered monster of insecurity that belies Ingrid’s obsessions.
A commentary on the fraudulence of social media personas, Ingrid Goes West strikes best in its expose of the human condition. Early worries of the film being yet another to flippantly stereotype mental health (a la Split) are quickly ‘blocked’ by full bodied, vulnerable performances. Best known for her sardonic too-cool-to-care person, Plaza is an inspired casting as Ingrid, delivering on successive, surprising levels. Here is so strong a performance that, almost inexplicably, it is nigh on impossible to not feel sorry the character – essentially a stalker of worrying skill – whose spiralling is so readily enabled by ever-advancing technology.
What’s powerful here is that, for all its gibes at modern technophillic society, Ingrid Goes West tells a yarn that could so easily fit any era in which any individual has suffered the pains of isolation.