“What’s your biggest emotional wound?”
That question, posed to our anti-heroine Ingrid Thorburn roughly 30 minutes into Ingrid Goes West, should carry the weight of the world. It’s the type of question that demands self-interrogation – one that requires an emotional honesty and a cognitive courage to confront.
Instead the characters treat it like a throwaway icebreaker – the type of frivolous, empty inquiry you’d hear during a sleepover game of 21 Questions. The question is asked by an unidentified waiter at a trendy Los Angeles café before taking Ingrid’s order, who then instead answers with his own profoundly sad personal trauma that he punctuates with a dismissive laugh. And Ingrid could give a shit.
This inadvertently becomes the thesis statement of Ingrid Goes West, a pitch-black comedy about social media addiction taken to its darkest — and hilarious— extremes. It also doubles as treatise on the breakdown of communication in a hyper-connected world, an age defined by oversharing and under-valuing language. It follows Ingrid’s (a never better Aubrey Plaza) descent into digital disarray after she becomes obsessed with popular Instagram influencer Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen) and decides to move to LA so she can befriend her.
When we first meet Ingrid, we see that she’s done this before — and the results were catastrophic. The movie opens with a tight close-up on Plaza’s wide, expressive eyes drowning in tear-smeared black eyeliner, darting in every direction as she thumbs through the anxiety-inducing nosedive of the infinite scroll of her Instagram feed. She’s fixated on a wedding she clearly wasn’t invited to. While the audience might initially believe she’s just suffering from FOMO alone at home, we soon get a rude awakening: Ingrid is sitting outside the wedding in her car. She then promptly crashes it, cusses the bride out, and then sprays her with mace. It’s disturbing, yet you can’t help but laugh to cut through the tension (and no actor working today is better at delivering percussive cuss words than Aubrey Plaza).
After a brief stint in a psych ward, Ingrid is packing her bags and taking the money left to her after her mother’s death to begin her odyssey to LA after reading about “Your Newest Girl Crush” Taylor Sloane in a magazine (even print shares in the culpability in curating faux fixations). But as soon as she lands in LA she immediately immerses herself in the imitation game, purchasing clothes that she sees on Taylor’s IG feed and eating all of the #AvocadoToasts and living a #blessed LA lifestyle before things eventually spiral out of control and reach peak comedic discomfort.
But despite the dark, satirical commentary of Ingrid Goes West, at its core the film is teeming with empathy. Thanks to director Matt Spicer’s sensitive yet electric direction and co-writer David Branson Smith’s pitch-perfect script, Ingrid never devolves into some Luddite lecture or screed against “kids these days and their Twitters.” They capture a world where IRL and URL have collapsed onto each other, where “But First, Coffee” and other shorthand caption-speak festoon the streets, as to exist solely as a carefully composed backdrop to a pseudo-candid photo for social media consumption. And Spicer and Smith highlight the sadness in that. They clearly understand the language, attitude and performative behaviors of social media (the two are active on Twitter), so they have an acute understanding of both the immense good and irreparable harm that can come from social media. Spicer and Smith don’t see the kids using social media as the “Me” Generation. They see them as the “Somebody Please See Me” Generation. And Ingrid Thorburn just happens to be the tragic avatar of that ethos.
And Ingrid Goes West doesn’t work without Aubrey Plaza anchoring the mania in something emotionally believable and devastatingly human. She plays Ingrid with the textured balance of part menacingly deranged, part painfully un-self-aware, but wholly someone who is suffering and in desperate need of help— think Robert De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy meets Kristen Wiig’s Alice in Welcome to Me. Plaza’s pupils seem to self-dilate whenever Ingrid becomes overcome with quiet, desperate panic at the thought of Taylor not wanting to be her friend. Plaza takes the interiority of Ingrid deadly seriously, and her empathy for her character helps ground the lighter moments of the film where Plaza gets to showcase her physical comedy prowess and acerbic tongue.
Spicer and Smith’s script also wisely avoids making women the punching bag of internet culture and sends some well-deserved shots at the bros. Men have nearly gotten a pass from the cultural criticism of accelerated narcissism, as “girls taking a group selfie at a baseball game” and “IG Honeys” have become the low-hanging fruit to pick at. But in Ingrid, the boys don’t make it out unscathed. Ingrid’s stoner landlord and eventual love interest (a scene-stealing O’Shea Jackson Jr., carrying his father’s comedic banner to new heights) is the poster child for the infantilizing nature of fanboy culture. He’s a Batman obsessive, a manchild who speaks in Batman & Robin quotes, and even asks to be called Bruce during sex. There’s also Taylor’s coked-out, racist frat boy brother Nicky (played with terrifying gusto by Billy Magnussen), who looks like a Brooks Brothers catalogue fucked a Make America Great Again hat and is disgustingly entitled. He relishes in terrorizing and embarrassing Ingrid once he figures out she’s a vulnerable fraud. He’s a literal troll.
Ingrid Goes West is a heartbreaking yet hilarious dark comedy that gets the messy loneliness and self-imposed emotional wounds of internet culture right. And with a sharp script, confident direction, and an unforgettable performance from Aubrey Plaza, it is not only one of the best films of 2017, but an accurate snapshot of what IRL looks like rn.
Hashtag prayer hands emoji.
Erik Abriss is a writer living in Los Angeles.