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Ingrid Goes West

Posted September 2, 2017 By Curiosity Inc.

It baffles me that this weekend — freaking Labor Day weekend! — is the second in a row without any mainstream wide releases. You’d think this would be a great time to capitalize on a holiday weekend, especially since this summer gave us so many underappreciated movies that might have done better in a frame with less competition. The good news is that this has been a godsend for weird little arthouse surprises that came completely out of nowhere and might have been thoroughly buried in a more active weekend. Yesterday, it was Patti Cake$.

Today, it’s Ingrid Goes West, a film from debut director/co-writer Matt Spicer. While the cast has a few recognizable names and faces (Aubrey Plaza, Elizabeth Olsen, and O’Shea Jackson Jr. chief among them), this is still a movie with a reported budget of $1.3 million and no mainstream studio support. It’s a film that got by pretty much entirely on praise from the festival circuit, and that praise is certainly not undeserved.

The titular Ingrid Thorburn (Aubrey Plaza) is still reeling from the recent death of her mother. She’s adrift, she’s depressed, and I’m not sure even God would know what’s psychologically wrong with her. The long and short of it is that Ingrid has withdrawn herself completely into social media, latching onto the first Instagram follower to show sympathy (Charlotte, played by Meredith Hagner).

What happens next is a bit unclear, since the film opens with Ingrid crashing Charlotte’s wedding to give the bride a faceful of pepper spray. The basic gist is that Ingrid obsessively followed Charlotte on social media, using what she learned to insert herself into Charlotte’s social circle. Things went sideways when Ingrid was outed as a stalker and she didn’t get a wedding invitation, hence the pepper spray. After a few months in a mental institution, Ingrid is released and the cycle begins again.

Ingrid’s new unwitting best friend is Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), a photographer who lives in L.A. with her new husband (Ezra, played by Wyatt Russell). Upon finding Taylor’s account and finding her to be the coolest person to ever respond to her Instagram comments, Ingrid cashes out her massive inheritance and moves to L.A. She then proceeds to make Taylor’s acquaintance through means to diabolically manipulative that I don’t dare spoil them here.

And then a weird thing happens.

See, we already know that Ingrid is a psychological time bomb. She’s a pathological liar, she has an obsessive need for attention, she’s deathly afraid of being alone, and she’s willing to say or do anything to fill that massive void in herself. Ingrid structures her entire persona around what she thinks people will like, partly so that people will like her, partly because she has no persona of her own, and partly because her mind would break into a million pieces if she ever had to confront the fact that she has no persona of her own.

Everything about Ingrid is fake. But what’s fascinating about Taylor is that the more we learn about her, the more we’re led to wonder how much of her is also fake. These are ultimately two young women who only ever show what they want their social media followers to see. In other words, we’ve got two women who have no idea just how crazy the other one is. So what happens when the facades come undone?

At this point, it should be obvious that this is a movie about interaction through social media, but at least this is the rare movie that has an functional grasp of precisely what social media is and how it works (*coughTheCirclecough*). But at its heart and core, this is really just a movie about being true to yourself, how your real friends are the ones who love the real you, and so on and so forth. This is all threadbare stuff and I’m sure we’ve all seen it done poorly in so many ways. But the social media angle makes the theme far more modern and relevant. Plus, applying the theme to something that’s an omnipresent part of our lives and impacts however many millions of followers does a lot to raise the stakes and the scale. And of course there’s the fact that this is a black comedy built around somebody who’s very desperately in need of professional psychiatric care. That does a lot to keep the film grounded without getting too cloying, and the protagonist’s unstable nature keeps us guessing what’s going to happen next.

Once again, Aubrey Plaza proves herself to be a woefully underrated leading lady. This is easily the best I’ve seen from her since Safety Not Guaranteed. (I haven’t seen her work in “Legion”, mind you, though I’ve heard wonderful things.) Elizabeth Olsen doesn’t fare nearly as well, but Taylor is an opaque character by design and Olsen does a decent job with it. O’Shea Jackson Jr. fares much better as Ingrid’s landlord/love interest, and Billy Magnussen is a hoot as Taylor’s douchey drugged-up brother.

So are there nitpicks? Well, a big one concerns the limits of Ingrid’s inheritance. It’s made perfectly clear that Ingrid goes through cash like money’s not an object. She’s going through expenses that would be astronomically expensive even if she wasn’t living in freaking Los Angeles, and there’s no sign of anything that resembles an income. It’s beyond me how Ingrid was able to get so many thousands of dollars to fit inside that one tiny backpack, or how her mother came into such a huge fortune to begin with.

But by far the bigger problem is the ending. I’m going to have a hard time discussing this without spoilers, but fuck it, this is about something potentially far more important than spoiling a movie.

You see… there’s a suicide attempt. One that goes viral, no less. And the way it plays out, this could very easily be mistaken as portraying suicide as a call for attention; the juvenile and irresponsibly dangerous notion that “Everyone would suddenly love me if I just killed myself.” I’m confident that this isn’t what the filmmakers were going for, but it’s still disturbingly easy to come away with that interpretation.

On the other hand, this event is also played out in a way that conveys a deeply important message, one that this film desperately needed: The message that artifice and hyperbole aren’t necessary for popularity. This notion that authenticity and sincerity will always yield some kind of genuine human connection, even if it’s nothing more than pity. Moreover, there’s the fact that every follower is an actual human being behind the screen. In the digital age, now more than ever, we truly have no idea how many friends and loved ones we really have. It’s a cliche, but it’s true: You are loved. Somebody out there cares about you, even if it’s only a stranger.

Ingrid goes through the whole movie trying to make in-person friendships, and she ends up trying too hard for anyone’s good. It was very crucial for the movie to take that time and show that online friendships are no less real, they’re just fundamentally different.

(Side note: It perhaps bears mentioning that this movie comes packaged with a short film. It’s… well, it’s an animated short. Other than that, I really have no idea what the hell it is and I’d just as soon forget I ever sat through it.)

Ingrid Goes West deserves credit for making some pretty bold choices, even if a few of them backfire. On the whole, however, I found it to be a wonderful dark comedy that made some timely and insightful statements about narcissism and obsession in the Internet Age. And really, the movie is worth checking out just for Aubrey Plaza.

This one’s definitely worth a recommendation. And anyway, what else are you going to see during a dry spell like this one?

Patti Cake$

Posted September 2, 2017 By Curiosity Inc.

Patti Cake$ tells the story of Patti Dombrowski, aka Dumbo, aka Patti Cake$, aka… well, she has a lot of different monikers, but she typically goes by “Killer P” (Danielle Macdonald). She’s a plus-sized 23-year-old white girl living in New Jersey, with big dreams of rap superstardom. Literally, the movie opens with a dream sequence to that effect.

In Patti’s corner is another wannabe rapper, a stick-thin Muslim named Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay). Later on, they find a producer in a soft-spoken and mercurial anarchist who calls himself Basterd the Antichrist (Mamoudou Athie). Together, our crew of misfits — dubbed “PB N J” — puts together a mixtape to try and make it in the rap game.

In the other corner, Patti has a trainwreck of a mother (Barb, played by Bridget Everett) who was on track to be a rock star before pregnancy put that to a halt. Not that she’s bitter in the least about that, especially not towards Patti, of course. So now Barb is trying to relive the long-past glory days, warbling karaoke while getting blackout drunk. Patti also has an ailing grandmother (Nana, played by Cathy Moriarty) who’s burying the family in medical debt. And since Barb is effectively useless, of course the burden falls on Patti to take useless dead-end jobs, working herself to the bone to make ends meet.

All the while, everyone keeps telling her she’s fat, she’s ugly, she’s useless, she’ll never make it as a rapper and why would she ever want to be a gangster pumping out garbage that’s not real music… you get the idea. In fact, let’s be honest, you should already be familiar with the whole premise.

The “small fish in a big pond” story of some upstart rising to fame and fortune has long since been done to death. Even in the context of a misfit who seems laughably at odds with their chosen career, it’s been done to death. (“A Jamaican bobsled team? How wacky is that?!”) And sure enough, the plot unfolds pretty much exactly as you might expect, beat for beat. And sometimes, contrived measures become necessary in getting to the next beat like clockwork. But what saves this movie is in the fine details.

First and foremost, this is a movie about rap. Of course the film addresses the mainstream perception of rap: Flashy clothes and jewelry, expensive liquor, tons of drugs, and so on. Additionally, this is a genre heavily dominated by men, so of course there’s a constant stream of sexist bullshit flying around. Oh, and we can’t forget the “person of color” aspect, as black people feel very possessive about something so strongly associated with black history and culture.

So into this image-conscious world of black men comes a broke-ass plus-sized white woman. There is seriously no end to the misogyny she’s subjected to, and that’s before she gets accused of appropriating black culture. This is how the story establishes its stakes, showing us what Patti is up against. It also gives us a reason to root for the character because deep down, we know all that stuff is bullshit.

When it comes to rap, the number one unforgivable sin is to not be credible. Whether you’re rapping about how dangerous and wealthy you are, and/or whether you’re making some sociopolitical argument, the absolute fastest way to become a punchline is to spit rhymes without the ability to back it up. Anyone can say “I’m going to shoot you.” But a truly great rapper is someone who can say “I’m going to shoot you” with such devastating wordplay and dizzying flow that it feels like you seriously just got shot.

Rap is nothing more or less than proof that words have power. As with any other art, it’s words and imagery given weight and impact. And as with any other art, there is no one right way to go about it, and it doesn’t belong to any one demographic. Everyone will have their own approaches and methods, their own perspectives and messages, and their own way of failing or making it big. All that ultimately matters is The Craft, and how much sincere heart is put into it.

The movie expresses all of that in a brilliantly subtle way, as Patti slowly learns to stop emulating others and make it on her own terms. In fact, precisely because she’s a woman in a man’s game, her strengths and weaknesses are all so wildly out of the ordinary that she can take the competition off-guard in some remarkable ways. Moreover, she never raps about “the black experience” or spending tons of money, or anything else she knows nothing about. All of her lyrics stem from her own life experiences and struggles, so it all comes from an authentic place. Haters call her a poser, but we always know better. Sure, she might exaggerate a bit in terms of confidence, but that pushes Patti to develop more confidence so she can effectively sell her rhymes as a talented rapper and a damn sexy woman.

Danielle Macdonald delivers the performance of a lifetime here, and she hasn’t even begun to hit her stride yet. Everyone else in the cast does okay, to be clear, but they’re barely worth mentioning because every character was so clearly designed around Patti. The entire movie rested on Macdonald’s shoulders, demanding that this young actress be put through the whole emotional gamut while slinging phenomenal verses worthy of the next great up-and-coming rapper. It’s a tall order, but she had it fucking nailed from start to finish.

But what’s interesting about everyone else in the supporting cast is the level of nuance involved. We’ve got sympathetic characters who occasionally do something brash or malicious. We’ve got characters who are total assholes except when they make one little gesture to show something that just might be more complicated than a cartoon villain. And then we’ve got Patti’s employers, whose acts of dickishness are so frequent yet so fleeting that it begs the question of whether they really are misogynist assholes or if they’re too busy to know any better.

It’s really quite remarkable how the filmmakers maintain the delicate balance of expressing just enough humanity for each character. When the balance works, anyway. There are sadly too many times in which a character’s development arc will make a massive vertical spike for no apparent reason except that the plot said so. Likewise, the looming threat of bankruptcy and eviction is a pivotal motivation for Patti and her family, and a driving factor for the plot… until it isn’t. Right when it seems like money problems should be bigger than ever and impossible to overcome, the film abruptly shifts focus to Patti’s rap career and pretty much entirely forgets about the money issue altogether. It’s a frustrating oversight, to say the least.

As for miscellaneous notes, I loved all the little technical touches throughout. There’s some very strategic use of extreme close-ups and handheld camera, some fantastic choices with lighting and color (especially the color green), and the sound design is wonderful. Kudos are also due to the editing, which expresses the passage of time and Patti’s own headspace in some beautifully clever ways. And of course there’s some sparing yet remarkable use of visual effects to show Patti’s more creative moments. My personal favorite example comes when Patti finally gets to meet her idol, and it takes a while for us to find out just how much of that meeting was only playing out in her head.

Patti Cake$ has some serious issues trying to juggle so many character arcs and storylines, and it all amounts to what’s basically a cookie-cutter “rise to fame and fortune” plot. Yet the film gets by on charm, due in no small part to a powerhouse lead performance from Danielle Macdonald. Moreover, the film is brimming with style and heart, wonderfully funny and emotionally gripping. While it’s true that the film can’t get around to everything in only 100 minutes, that also means the film is never in danger of overstaying its welcome.

It’s a charming and humorous story that takes a tired premise and makes something truly inspirational out of it. That is more than reason enough to give it a strong recommendation.