Ingrid Goes West is one of those indie flicks that flies just beneath the radar, the subjects of its savage satire just a little too obscure for the usual comedy treatment. But you shouldn’t miss this brilliantly-acted takedown of Instagram fameballs, competing for followers and likes in the sunny sellout city of Los Angeles. Unhinged, funny, and sad by turns, this movie gets to the heart of what’s wrong with social media—and why it destroys people’s lives.
Ingrid is a social media addict whose fragile self-esteem is built on whether internet celebs “engage” with her on Instagram. As the film begins, we discover that she’s recently been institutionalized after stalking and attacking a woman who replied to one of Ingrid’s comments—and then never wrote to her again. The gleefully maniacal Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Rec, Legion) manages to play Ingrid as the pathetic object of broad satire, while also humanizing her. Yes, Ingrid is a fame-obsessed stalker, but she’s also suffering from mental illness in the wake of her mother’s death.
When she’s recovered enough to leave the institution, the first thing Ingrid does is charge up her sparkle-encrusted phone and start looking for a new “friend.” Her targets are all young women with huge followings whose lives are full of smiling “friends,” quirky designer clothes, cool decor, and locally-sourced avocado toast. Quickly she finds her latest prey: Taylor (Elizabeth Olson), an up-and-coming fashionista with a cute dog and a taste for expensive housewares. Using a modest inheritance from her mother, Ingrid creates a new Instagram account under the name Ingridgoeswest, and relocates to Taylor’s LA neighborhood.
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.
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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