The world of social media and celebrity culture is, of course, ripe and ready for satirical exploration, and writer/director Matt Spicer’s Ingrid Goes West plunges headlong into it with darkly humorous if uneven results. Aubrey Plaza gives one of her now trademark performances — caustic, solicitous and unbalanced — as Ingrid Thorburn, whom mental illness and an unfortunate confrontation at a wedding has sent into a downward spiral that ends with her spending time away from the world for a while.
When she emerges, however, she’s got a bit of an inheritance and a supposedly fresh start ahead of her. But she’s also got a phone, and it isn’t long before she begins obsessing about Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), a social “influencer” whose job is to promote products on Instagram and whose seemingly idyllic life in Los Angeles becomes front and center of Ingrid’s daily social media diet. And it isn’t long before Ingrid pulls up stakes and decides to head to L.A. and become Taylor’s friend — by any means necessary.
Ingrid does manage to ingratiate herself into the lives of Taylor and her husband Ezra (Wyatt Russell) through less-than-honest means, while also managing to attract the interest of her kind but no-bullshit landlord (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.). It isn’t long, however, before cracks begin to appear in the fantasy life she’s managed to will into being — especially with the arrival of Taylor’s ne’er-do-well brother Nicky (Billy Magnussen). And that’s not good at all for Ingrid.
Spicer makes his directorial debut here, and while he exudes confidence and clarity in that role, his biggest problem is one of tone. But that may also be a result of his script and its biggest flaw: Ingrid is positioned early on as a woman who struggles with mental issues, which the movie trivializes at first in pursuit of its larger objectives. When those issues surface again later in the film, driving it in a darker direction, it clashes with the humorous nature of the movie’s earlier portions and never quite recovers, especially in the unsatisfying (and somewhat predictable) ending.
The filmmaker may settle for only skirting the edge of a much darker kind of humor, but luckily he’s bailed out by his cast. Plaza proves why she is one of our most watchable comic actresses right now, exuding a mix of anger, sarcasm and playfulness that makes Ingrid empathetic even when part of you wants to tear your eyes away. Olsen is also note-perfect as Taylor, whose own carefully constructed façade — complete with faux affection and virtue signaling — belies a much different and hollow persona underneath. Jackson and Russell also give nuanced, grounded performances, with the former and his Batman obsession providing some gentle relief from the more insane goings-on and the latter in particular exuding disgust at the culture around him but resigned to sticking it out.
Ingrid Goes West is dead-on in its portrayal of how the madness of social media can easily consume our lives and relationships, and also how people create idealized versions of themselves for public consumption. Had it gone all the way with those ideas instead of teetering on the edge of becoming a horror movie, it might work better (a recent Black Mirror episode starring Bryce Dallas Howard featured some of the same concerns). There’s still fun to be had here at the expense of our current culture, but the great film about what these so-called tools are doing to us has yet to be made.
Ingrid Goes West is in theaters on Friday, August 11.
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