Anyone who engages with some form of social media is aware by now that there is a massive gulf between the personae we present online and our True Selves. By skewering LA hipsters who cultivate online celebrity through carefully curated Instagram profiles, the dark comedy Ingrid Goes West isn’t necessarily revealing anything its audience isn’t already aware of. The titular protagonist of that work, however, is a relatively fresh look at how that artificial cultivation of an online Personal Brand affects its consumers, specifically those suffering from mental illness. Ingrid Thorburn, miserably brought to life by Aubrey Plaza, is a character as worthy of study as Robert DeNiro’s Rupert Pupkin or Anthony Perkins’s Norman Bates. In a lot of ways, Ingrid Goes West falls short of being worthy of that performance, which updates the classic-tragic Lead Role Psychopath for the online stalker era in both a darkly humorous & incredibly tense way. The story that forms around Plaza’s turn as Thorburn isn’t afforded nearly as much nuance as the character herself, but her onscreen presence is alone enough to justify giving the movie a look.
Ingrid Thorburn begins her tragic saga in isolation, with only the cold glow of her smartphone holding her hand through a recent loss & the raw emotional compulsions of an obvious chemical imbalance. She frantically scans Instagram profiles for a point of contact out there in the great social void, desperately hanging on for dear life to any kind word or signal of acknowledgement. Her obsessions with individual Online Personalities are intensely focused, requiring just as much meticulous planning for stalking & befriending as her targets afford selfies & squared-off photographs of avocado toast. Her obsession du jour in this particular episode is an LA socialite (Elizabeth Olsen) who’s so wrapped up in her online persona that she builds a profession around advertising products on her feed. It turns out that there’s a vulnerability to constantly updating your location & minute-to-minute activities online, not least of all that your online followers can become your literal followers “in real life.” The even bigger danger, though, is in having people interpret your online hyperbole as actual sincerity. There’s a huge difference between advertising that a breakfast spot sells The Best Avocado Toast In The World and telling another human being “You’re so funny. I love you so much. You’re amazing. You’re my favorite person I’ve ever met.” When you’re dealing with human emotions, especially ones as pronounced as Ingrid Thorburn’s, that kind of disconnect from sincerity & authenticity can be dangerously cruel, especially when your victim discovers you’re not really “friends.”
There are theoretically better versions of this same story where the thriller aspects are highlighted & Ingrid becomes a kind of social media assassin who drags her obsessions down to her level or where LA charlatans & phonies are comedically lampooned for being heartless demons. Instead, Ingrid Goes West floats halfway between those extremes in a noncommittal way. There’s some incisive criticism of Los Angeles Bohemia in subtle digs at its barely-concealed racism or the unspoken expense of its “rustic” mason jars & potted succulents lifestyle. Ingrid badly wants to be an avocado toast kind of girl, but she’s much more at home eating McDonald’s out of the bag; there’s a wealth class difference in that distinction. The movie’s much stronger in its intense thriller beats, however, drumming up more visible thirst in Ingrid’s eyes than Sofia Coppola even dared to conjure in her recent remake of The Beguiled. You’re never sure if Ingrid wants to eat, fuck, or Single White Female her obsessive targets and the movie’s strongest moments are in accentuating the delicate intensity of that unspoken desire. It will often diffuse the danger of her real world stalking with a comedic sing-along to K-Ci & JoJo’s “All My Life” or the charming presence of Straight Outta Compton‘s O’Shea Jackson Jr., who plays the world’s most patient man (& biggest Batman enthusiast). I’m not sure looking to Ingrid Goes West for insightful satire on cellphone addiction or the inauthenticity of social media posturing is ever nearly as satisfying as watching Ingrid Thorburn dangle from a thin thread while she tries to land herself a lifelong bestie as if she were shopping for clothes online. Aubrey Plaza does a fantastic job of making that precarious intensity a memorable, worthwhile viewing experience, but it is somewhat of a shame that the movie it supports couldn’t match that performance in its extremity or specificity.