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Ingrid Goes West

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 The long and short of it is that Ingrid has withdrawn herself completely into social media, latching onto the first Instagram follower to show sympathy (Charlotte, played by Meredith Hagner).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 so 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?

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