9/10 Ingrid Thorburn (Aubrey Plaza, who also produces) sits awake in the night, starring unflinchingly at her phone with tear-glazed eyes that seem skinned as if by some outside tormentor, her breathing unsteady, double-tapping to favorite the Instagram pictures of her best friend, Charlotte (Meredith Hagner). Most of the recent ones concern her wedding, to which Thorburn wasn’t invited.
From its first words, the question “Is this real?” as read on Charlotte’s Instagram feed, Ingrid Goes West weaves a disturbing tapestry of honesty and performance. It’s quickly revealed that Thorburn and Charlotte barely know each other, and Charlotte’s “reaching out after Thorburn’s mother died” consisted of liking a post.
Thorburn attacks Charlotte at the wedding, which is ongoing, and spends time in a mental institution. When she gets out, she latches on to Los Angeles Instagram celebrity Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen) and moves west to try and live out Sloane’s feed. After meeting Sloane with a dognapping scheme ala-Seven Psychopaths, Thorburn worms her way into her life with a growing tower of lies.
It’s an awful way to process grief, but why not? Sloane’s career and her entire identity are built on the lies of omission inherent in her social media stardom.
It’s astonishing to think that Olsen has only really been around since 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene. She’s a household name, an Avenger and a chameleon, and in Ingrid Goes West she effortlessly becomes THAT girl. An adorably awkward girl-next-door type, as soon as Sloane senses a camera she becomes a shifting mass of curves and easily deniable lust.
Sloane and her husband, Ezra O’Keefe (Wyatt Russell), live in the photogenic spaces in her Instagram feed as though nothing exists if it would be cropped out from their perfect world, not O’Keefe’s unhappiness or alcoholism, not even the sponsorship deals with which she makes their living. They’re the kind of people whose cupboards house those awful square white plates from trendy artisan restaurants and the 100 percent copper Moscow mule mugs that only belong in bars.
Desperate for the validation that follows Sloane like the train of her most elaborate fantasy wedding, Thorburn adopts her mannerisms, her hair, her diet and her haunts. She spends her inheritance like a genuine Venetian starlet and becomes one in the end. Everyone who knows her hates and fears her, but she takes solace in an ocean of adoring strangers.
Writer/director Matt Spicer came away from Sundance with a screenwriting award, shared with co-writer David Branson Smith, but Ingrid Goes West is stunningly well-shot. Spicer brutally establishes the worst parts of his scenes, smash-cutting to wonderful detail shots. At multiple points in the film, viewers experience the full extent of Thorburn’s deterioration in mere moments. The sub-woofer adds punch and gravitas to every vibration of her cell phone.
As much as Ingrid Goes West is about social media, it becomes specifically about identity in a social media-obsessed world. Though the events are brought to an extreme by Thorburn’s mental unwellness, which she clearly brings into the film with her, they center on experiences that are universal — and universally private. The film’s most distressing tension isn’t between the characters, but between the normal, completely recognizable posts in front of the phone camera and the increasingly out-of-hand realities behind it. As fantastic as the film’s events are, the run-of-the-mill social media output they produce keeps it disturbingly grounded in the current eye-rolling reality of attention-seeking behavior.
Ingrid Goes West is classified as a black comedy, and though the darkness is more prominent for me, there are plenty of laughs. Thorburn is the perfect role for Plaza, whose improv style is rolled seamlessly into the part. Her landlord, Dan Pinto (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), draws just as many laughs through his obsession with 1995’s universally hated Batman Forever.
Movies set entirely in the ’10s featuring characters who communicate the way we do are still very rare things, and still far less prominent than the films about the installation of those technologies — The Social Network, specifically. Unfriended, a critically panned horror film from 2014, takes place entirely over the course of a video chat session, and the similar-looking German film Friend Request hits American theaters Sept. 22. Last year’s excellent but mostly ignored Nerve also focused heavily on communication technology. Like the title character herself, Ingrid Goes West is helping blaze a new frontier in cinema, one that seems filled with anxieties about the real person on the other side of the screen.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate and a syndicated columnist with the Lewisville Texan Journal. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions and suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.