“What’s your biggest emotional wound?”
Many people are going to like Ingrid Goes West because its dark comedy seemingly mocks a culture they’ve wholeheartedly embraced. They’ll laugh because they see the titular lead (Aubrey Plaza‘s Ingrid Thorburn) as an exaggerated version of themselves: glued to social media, but letting it literally control her life. She’s who they could be if they didn’t have the self-control to stop themselves from losing perspective as far as differentiating real life and identity from the fictitious ones cultivated online. So on this shallow, surface level, the film can prove effective as a mirror towards a stereotype parents are quick to believe consumes every Millennial. The problem, though, is that Ingrid isn’t just some unhinged narcissist to mock. Social media isn’t merely gimmick—it’s her escape from tragedy.
As such, Matt Spicer‘s (along with co-writer David Branson Smith) directorial debut is a frustrating experience. It wants to simultaneously give Ingrid backstory that makes her more sympathetic than the punch line people believe she’ll be and dismiss her present-day antics as actions to laugh at instead of the clear emotional and psychological cry for help they are. The filmmakers would rather gloss over the true dramatic weight of her situation and focus on the darkly funny scenarios they can create from it, providing the humor of their satirical goals despite forgetting the underlying message. They could have easily excoriated opponents and/or proponents of social media in ways that were relevant and resonant, but instead they create a run-of-the-mill stalker narrative too timid to say anything at all.
The opening scene of Ingrid crashing a high school acquaintance’s wedding (someone she believes is her friend because of a throwaway act of internet kindness) is so over-the-top that you can’t help laughing. The character is introduced as a crazed woman liking every Instagram photo the bride posts with a mixture of joy, jealousy, and vehemence for not being there to share the moment. So her rolling up to the reception and storming in to mace her unsuspecting victim has us reveling in the situation’s sheer absurdity. We quickly condemn Ingrid as insane because we haven’t been given any information to think otherwise. But rather than carry on with that tone, Spicer changes our perspective of her through exposition. He doesn’t, however, let his film acknowledge the discrepancy.
You see, Ingrid’s mother recently passed after a lengthy health battle. We see the hospital bed in their living room and understand the time commitment necessary to care for her when Ingrid admits they were “best friends.” More than a mother then, she lost her closest confidant. It’s no wonder she would latch so strongly to whomever showed a modicum of compassion afterwards. Life post-tragedy was lonely and Ingrid looked to fill the void the easiest way she knew: through social media. What better way to connect and experience people’s lives than hourly posts about activities, interests, and desires? Instagram became an escape and a window. If this is how popular people act and live, maybe adopting a similar aesthetic means her days as pariah could be over.
That’s a lot of detail setting up a story with the potential weight to understand what drives us towards internet relationships over real life. There’s good (an outlet for outsiders to find community) and bad (fuel for narcissistic lifestyles built on pixels rather than human connection). And both can be mined through the burgeoning friendship between Ingrid and online celebrity/tastemaker Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen). The latter only has to respond to an innocuous web comment for the former to cash her inheritance ($60,000) and move west to California. Thus begins Ingrid’s mission to appropriate this woman’s identity as her own while also revealing the truth that Taylor appropriated it herself years ago. The possibilities for an exposé on social media’s power to irrevocably change our identities prove endless.
But while Spicer approaches such social commentary often, he never pulls the trigger. What’s worse is that he builds to a point where it seems assured he will. Amongst the sprinkles of cliché as joke satire—Taylor’s husband Ezra’s (Wyatt Russell) art being a sham wherein he simply paints hashtag wisdom atop others’ work or Ingrid’s landlord/love interest Dan (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) trying to make a career as a screenwriter via fan-fiction spun from his unabashed love for Batman—are clever machinations that propel us towards a collision course of real versus fake that desperately wants to vindicate Ingrid as empathetic and expose Taylor as vapid soul-sucker. There’s even a wonderful scene between Ingrid and Ezra that dives below their manufactured façades at honest truth before everything derails.
The problem is Taylor’s manic brother Nicky (Billy Magnussen) entering for no reason other than unmasking Ingrid. But we don’t need him in that role because Ingrid and Ezra’s heart-to-heart made it possible that she’d do it herself. That breakthrough moment reveals how she’s been led astray and still possesses the capacity to stop. And she might have if not for Nicky threatening to blackmail her. This one act ruins all the progress made to render Ingrid redeemable by forcing her to spiral even further into a hellish landscape of vanity and lies. Social media is completely tossed aside as a prop that’s no longer necessary while the plot moves forward with its escalating danger of unhinged psychopath loner against a world beholden to unrealistic views of normalcy.
As such the film becomes less a depiction of social media’s corruption and more proof that it’s new social order has arrived. Rather than place Ingrid as the common man able to see past the deceit for capital gains internet notoriety provides, she’s transformed into the outsider who must pave her own way towards glory. Because glory is the ultimate goal as set by Spicer and Smith—quantifiable popularity forever winning out over any semblance of humanity Ezra, Dan, or Ingrid yet retain. So in the end no one is redeemable here. Everyone strives for fame and discovers that it has nothing to do with them as much as the audience they cater towards. Ingrid Goes West doesn’t therefore shed light on anything we don’t already inherently presume.
There’s no message to learn when everyone proves opportunistic and accepting that tragedy is as much a commodity as success. Plaza and Olsen are fantastic at playing their characters with self-aware cliché, Magnussen always excels at pretty-boy douchebag, and Jackson Jr. and especially Russell show the potential to be more than the pawns they are. They’ve all embraced the roles Spicer has given them, he simply didn’t include any room for them to grow or adapt. They’re here to make us laugh at them rather than give us a reason to laugh at ourselves. And despite all having real problems that any bad behavior should prove a means towards repressing, it’s revealed that they’ve actually become bad people in the process. Such hollow cynicism just isn’t that interesting.
 Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) and Taylor (Elizabeth Olsen) pose for a photo in INGRID GOES WEST, courtesy of NEON
 Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) reads in a public place in INGRID GOES WEST, courtesy of NEON