Film Review: Ingrid Goes West

by Carrie Kahn on August 18, 2017

Tonally uneven film obscures provocative premise   

Social media obsessed Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) moves to L.A. with a plan to befriend her Instagram idol.

If you sometimes worry you may be checking your Facebook and Instagram feeds just a little too frequently, rest assured that you’ve got nothing on Ingrid Thorburn. As portrayed by an exceptional Audrey Plaza, the social media obsessed heroine of Ingrid Goes West becomes a poster child for smart phone restraint. Unfortunately, first time feature writer/director Matt Spicer and his co-writer David Branson Smith run into tone problems, turning what could have been a brilliant satire into something mildly amusing but ultimately unsatisfying, almost to the point of troubling.

The film’s bright spot is Plaza, who does her finest work to date here, bringing some welcome nuance to her typically caustic persona. We first get a glimpse that Ingrid may have some deeply rooted psychological issues to work through when she crashes a wedding in order to pepper spray the bride, who has failed to invite her. After a stint in a psychiatric clinic that clearly helps little, Ingrid, using an inheritance from her recently deceased mother, decides to move across the country to Los Angeles to real life “friend” Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), an Instagram style maven with whom Ingrid has become obsessed, to the point of stalking. As Ingrid ingratiates herself into Taylor’s world using considerably questionable tactics, we watch in dismay as what at first seems like a harmless girl crush turns into something much more serious, scary, and, ultimately, heartbreaking.

Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza, r.) is overjoyed when her Instagram idol Taylor (Elizabeth Olsen) begins to include her in R.L. 

Spicer and Smith have a kernel of a great idea here, and succeed in the first half of the film at poking gentle fun at a whole gamut of modern day preoccupations, from carefully curated Instagram selfies (the way posts pop up on the movie screen as Ingrid scrolls through her feed helps bring us right into her fixation), to lifestyle magazines, to Burning Man, to the L.A. wannabe artist boho scene. Anyone who’s ever eaten at Café Gratitude will get a kick out of what may be the funniest Los Angeles restaurant scene since Woody Allen ordered alfalfa sprouts and a plate of mashed yeast in Annie Hall. Olsen and Wyatt Russell, who plays Taylor’s hippie artist boyfriend Ezra (the name alone earns the screenplay points) are heroes to working class, east coast bred Ingrid, who can’t believe her luck when they accept her into their picture-perfect life, unaware that she is copying everything from Taylor’s sun-kissed chic look to their apartment décor.

But Spicer and Smith’s good natured ribbing of the L.A. scene and its glossy style-over-substance Instagram-ready pretense veers in a completely different direction in the second half of the movie, as Ingrid becomes more and more unhinged (thanks, in part, to Taylor’s obnoxious brother Nicky, played with douchey aplomb by Billy Magnussen, replete with ever present club wristbands). The movie takes a sharp turn from gentle satire to comedy so dark that it actually isn’t even funny anymore. The sudden shift in tone is jarring, as the lighthearted laughs give way to a somber Single White Female meets 13 Reasons Why kind of story. Of course, social media use and its effects on all of us are topical and relevant issues for films to address, but the problem here is that this film can’t seem to decide if it wants to make its points via satirical laughs, horror film scares, or pointed social commentary (as was done so well in 2013’s Disconnect). 

Dan (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) tries to talk some sense into Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza).

The picture’s ending, too, suffers from the same problem, as if the filmmakers couldn’t decide whether they wanted a happy rom com type ending (O’Shea Jackson Jr., as Ingrid’s puzzled, Batman-fan neighbor, nicely shows off his comedic side here), or wanted to make a more open-ended, philosophical statement about our current social media mania and how it’s affecting our mental health. The filmmaker’s lack of commitment to either option, though, instead just creates a sort of fuzzy middle ground, in which we’re left scratching our heads, and wondering what the film’s take away is supposed to be. Is Ingrid okay? Are the filmmakers? Are we? Ingrid Goes West won the Screenwriting Award at Sundance back in January, and was also nominated for the Grand Jury Prize, so the Sundance jurors clearly found musing on these questions to be worthwhile. Maybe you do, too; in that case, go hang out with Ingrid. But stand forewarned: by the film’s end, you just may think twice about posting those theater selfies. And that may not be a bad thing. 

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Ingrid Goes West opens today at Bay Area theaters.

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll.

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