Ingrid Goes West revels in everything wrong with Instagram celebrities

Enlarge / Taylor (Elizabeth Olson) and Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) pose for an Instagram shot, to celebrate becoming besties.
Ingrid remakes herself by buying everything that Taylor recommends in her Instagram feed.
Enlarge / Ingrid remakes herself by buying everything that Taylor recommends in her Instagram feed.

What’s surprising about this film is that it does not go in the direction of a classic stalker flick, where the stalker is inevitably a cipher made of nothing but crazy. Yes, Ingrid does some seriously messed up things to get into Taylor’s orbit, but the two women actually forge what seems like a fairly real bond. Both are, after all, obsessed with the artificial-self world of Instagram. So they have that in common. The weird fake/real gloss to the women’s friendship is highlighted by Ingrid’s voiceovers, where she reads the captions on their Instagram pictures, complete with “hashtag blessed” and “prayer hands emoji.”

At one point, Taylor confesses to Ingrid that her biggest #lifegoal is to “open a bed and breakfast where everything is for sale—just like on my Instagram.” It’s the perfect (and perfectly hideous) aspiration for her. After all, Taylor spends all her time converting her real life into pictures that look like something out of an Urban Outfitters catalogue.

As Ingrid works her way deeper into Taylor’s circle, we start to see cracks in the perfect life that Taylor shares with her husband Ezra (their wedding pictures were, of course, very popular on Instagram). It turns out that their #authentic life is literally an advertisement. Taylor uses her Instagram to showcase items that various #brands pay her to promote. Ezra calls himself an artist, but his main gig is designing wacky, millennial-friendly marketing campaigns.

Taylor and Ingrid’s friendship starts to crumble when Taylor’s even more hideously fameballing brother comes to town. As Taylor’s brother tries to drive a wedge between the women, things go completely off the rails and Ingrid hurtles toward another emotional meltdown. By this point, it’s become obvious that Ingrid’s fantasy bff friendship with Taylor isn’t all that different from Taylor’s fantasy life on Instagram. They’re both shams, desperately in search of approval, one click away from losing their dignity.

On a booze-fueled road trip, Ingrid sneaks a selfie when Taylor is sleeping.
Enlarge / On a booze-fueled road trip, Ingrid sneaks a selfie when Taylor is sleeping.

Though there are a lot of bizarro shenanigans in this flick, it’s testimony to director/co-writer Matt Spicer’s deft work that we wind up seeing the very real pain underlying Ingrid and Taylor’s pitiful lives. We realize Instagram isn’t a cause of their problems, but a symptom of something bigger. In Ingrid’s case, the photo-sharing service seems to ease a heart-eating loneliness that followed the loss of her her mother. Like an ideal mother, Instagram provides constant feedback and approval in the form of likes. Unfortunately, like a real mother, it can also be a source of abuse, neglect, and toxic intimacy.

What’s interesting is the way Taylor’s relationship with Instagram complicates this idea of social media substituting for a lost maternal relationship. Instagram is certainly a source of belonging and approval for Taylor, but more importantly it’s her job. She makes all her money (and it appears to be a considerable amount) from posting about #brands, and so she depends on the app for economic as well as emotional support.

Like Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher’s masterful movie The Social Network, Ingrid Goes West captures the true horror at the heart of social media. It is a technology that monetizes friendship, turning our private lives into a source of revenue. The Social Network explored this issue from the perspective of the men who created one of the biggest social media empires in the world. Ingrid Goes West captures it from the point of view of the women who use social media—and, often, are abused by it.

Regardless of how you feel about Instagram, Ingrid Goes West is a must-watch satire of life in the social media spotlight.

Ingrid Goes West is playing in select U.S. theaters.

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