Ingrid Goes West Review: #CultureShock

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Aubrey Plaza shines in this immensely fascinating, but ultimately uneven satire of the Instagram generation.

Last year, the New York Post published a brilliant piece called “Everything today is a lie.” In it, writer Maureen Callahan details how our society has slowly become one giant reality show; everything perfectly curated and staged to tell a specific story or, more likely, to sell us something. Throughout the article, one thing remained clear: people might have become wise to the facade they’re being peddled, but, for some reason, they’ll buy into it anyway.

I can’t help but think that a part of this mindset was influenced by Instagram. You know, that fun, battery-draining app on your phone where you and your friends can post pictures of your brunch together, rack up “likes” on your posts like a popularity scorecard, and live vicariously through beautiful strangers who pop up on your search feed. Most of these people post photos with captions that say #sponsored or #ad at the end, because they’re being paid to be beautiful and wear nice clothes and go nice places. It doesn’t matter that they blatantly hock goods on their pages, because it works like a charm.

In no way am I pretending to be above the shiny lure of Instagram. In fact, I’m sure I stopped writing this review several times to take a quick peek at my feed. Still, it’s often nice when someone or something comes along that holds up a mirror to our ridiculousness so we can reign ourselves in a little.

Ingrid Goes West, the feature-length debut of writers Matt Spicer and David Branson Smith, aims to be such a film. When it hits the nail on the head, it really hammers it down, making for an acerbic and wholly enjoyable satire of our social media-obsessed culture. Unfortunately, the film’s wit often gets in the way of its story, making for a rather disjointed experience.

Things start off with a bang as we meet the titular Ingrid Thorburn (Aubrey Plaza). With mascara tears streaked down her face and a manic look in her eyes, she’s pored over her phone as she scrolls through a woman’s Instagram posts from her wedding day. A minute later, she’s barging into the wedding unannounced to pepper spray the bride. It’s one hell of a sequence, and the darkly comic tone it sets is enthralling. Indeed, Ingrid Goes West is unafraid to pull some punches.

After the pepper spray incident, Ingrid does a brief stint at a mental institution before going back to eating frozen meals on her couch and stalking more beautiful people on Instagram. The “tick, tick” sound that occurs when she likes a photo starts to resemble an ominous ticking clock, especially when she hones in on LA-based influencer Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen). Soon, as the title suggests, Ingrid is taking all the cash she has and heading out west. In a matter of days she secures an apartment, tracks down Taylor’s favorite brunch spot, and even dyes her hair to look like her.

Ingrid quickly concocts a scheme to Single White Female befriend Taylor, and it all goes according to plan. Of course, the more time we spend with the two of them together, the more we realize that Ingrid isn’t the only one who’s living a lie. Taylor is exactly like that cool LA girl you always see on your Insta-feed. She’s got a breezy, carefree attitude, loves to quote Joan Didion and take trips to Joshua Tree, and is always wearing the perfect boho dress. Yet, as Ingrid gets to know Taylor and her husband Ezra (Wyatt Russell) more, their gleaming veneer begins to crack. They might be #perfect on paper, but there are some serious issues boiling beneath the surface.

Ingrid Goes West won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and it’s not hard to see why. The best parts of the film are its ingeniously witty barbs at our trend-chasing generation. In one memorable scene, Ingrid heads to one of Taylor’s favorite cafes and is promptly asked by the waiter, “what’s your emotional wound?” When she doesn’t respond, he smiles and says, “that’s our question of the day!”

The earnestness with which these characters believe they’re living authentically is why the satire works so well, and it’s bolstered even further by the casts’ magnetic performances. Olsen is hauntingly accurate as a pretentiously unpretentious hipster, rolling off lines like “oh my god, you’re so funny and amazing, I love you so much!” with a strikingly deliberate casualness. Straight Outta Compton‘s O’Shea Jackson Jr. shows up as Ingrid’s new landlord. Though he’s unfortunately relegated to the role of faithful sidekick, his Batman-obsessed screenwriter character is a real scene-stealer thanks to Jackson Jr.’s impeccable comedic timing.

The heart of the film, however, lies with Plaza, who proves that she can do so much more than April Ludgate’s signature eye roll. As Ingrid, Plaza remains a tightly-wound enigma—you feel as though she’s seconds away from completely unraveling, but you can never tell what’s going to set her off. It’s a livewire performance, and one that will hopefully lead to more daring and diverse roles ahead.

Despite all the good things the film has going for it, Ingrid Goes West ends up sacrificing story for its sense of zeitgeist. Along with her time at a mental institution, we learn in the beginning that Ingrid’s mother—her one true friend—recently passed away. This exploration of grief and mental illness could have made for a poignant narrative arc, but it isn’t given nearly enough attention to really make an impact. Ingrid’s sanity, or lack thereof, is pushed aside for most of the film’s runtime in favor of shrewd dialogue and funny set pieces. It’s a shame, really, because had the movie given both of these topics equal weight, it could have elevated itself beyond just being a culture critique.

The ending echoes Callahan’s essay, reinstating the idea that the vicious cycle of fakery will continue, even when people wake up to it. I won’t give away the details here, but I will say that it feels rather abrupt. Still, Ingrid Goes West is fresh and exciting, even if it isn’t perfect. It’s flaws are disappointing, but I’m willing to take them over a glossy deception any day. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go unfollow some beautiful strangers. Grade: B

 

By Mike Papirmeister

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