It’s no secret that our generation is one that is obsessed with itself. Narcissism runs deep in the roots of millennial culture, with social media being the main vehicle of maintaining a satisfactory virtual self-image. “Ingrid Goes West,” a new indie comedy starring the inimitable Aubrey Plaza (“The Little Hours”), searches to deconstruct this issue in the most twisted way possible.
After a stint in a mental institution, the film’s title character, played by Plaza, decides to head to Los Angeles in search of a new life and a new BFF in Instagram influencer Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen, “Wind River”). Using a hefty inheritance from her deceased mother, Ingrid’s excursions to become exactly like Taylor — dying her hair the same shade of blonde, buying the same Joan Didion novel, eating the same vegan enchilada — lead to both disturbing and hysterical results. Once Ingrid gets acquainted with Taylor and her pretentious husband Ezra (a great Wyatt Russell, “Everybody Wants Some!!”), her obsession slowly turns into a very, very dark journey of misguided desire.
Despite how uncomfortable it is to see Ingrid put herself through this experience, it’s not far from reality. In a way, Ingrid represents all those who feel lost and seek to find meaning and solace in the “unique” personalities that live on social media. “Ingrid Goes West” prevails overall as a satire on identity in the modern age. At times, the themes of social media and self-image skim the surface of being heavy-handed and exploitative, kind of like Jason Reitman’s similarly themed “Men, Women & Children.” But what that movie lacked in nuance and depth, “Ingrid Goes West” makes up for with heart and intelligent storytelling.
Perhaps “Ingrid Goes West” wouldn't be nearly as absorbing without its incredible acting. Plaza, in particular, gives a layered lead performance as Ingrid, complementing her usual deadpan expressions with a profound, relatable loneliness. Olsen nails the Instagram queen personality, neither downplaying nor exaggerating the artifice of her character. Both O’Shea Jackson Jr. (“Straight Outta Compton”) and character actor Billy Magnussen (“Friends from College”) nearly steal the show. Jackson Jr. imbues irresistible charm into Ingrid’s vape-smoking landlord/romantic interest Dan, while Magnussen’s role as Taylor’s douchey brother Nicky has the actor sliding from deceptively beguiling to off-the-wall bonkers.
Along with the brilliant cast, “Ingrid Goes West” also benefits from nifty aesthetic sleekness. Bryce Fortner’s cinematography saturates his shots with pulpy neon colors and lurid day-glo undertones. The script, written by David Branson Smith and director Matt Spicer, tackles timely themes, though the millennial slang and excessive hashtags will induce some eye-rolling. Even the traditional, string-heavy score stands out as the film’s most underrated aspect, bringing a nice, contrapuntal touch to the story’s postmodern vibe.
As entertaining and well-acted as it is, “Ingrid Goes West” is not a perfect film, nor is it groundbreaking. Much like its protagonist, “Ingrid Goes West” feels like it can go off the edge at any moment of its brisk 97 minute runtime. The opening scene, in which a devastated Ingrid assaults her ex-best friend Charlotte with mace, makes for a rather unpleasant introduction. There’s an intense, semi-crime thriller bit in the third act that almost pushes the film’s tone off balance. And for some, Ingrid’s character may be grating and even unbearable, as we watch her lie and cheat her way to become Taylor’s best friend. The point of her actions and their ultimate consequences makes for a simplistic lesson on the façade of living a filtered lifestyle, a lesson that could be encapsulated in a simple tweet.
But for what it’s worth, “Ingrid Goes West” is smart enough to dodge the trappings of other tech-centric films because it isn’t a boring melodrama or a supernatural cyber-horror flick (We get it: Social media is dangerous. Tell me something I don’t know). The story’s biting comedy saves “Ingrid Goes West” from going off the rails, and despite how cynical it may be, there are small, radiant moments peppered in the film that signify an optimistic outlook.
“Ingrid Goes West” doesn’t tell its audience to put their phones down or delete their Instagrams. It simply asks whether or not we’re willing to explore and show our real selves online, instead of fabricating our lives for the sake of attention and validation.