Ingrid Goes West: The Queen of Social Media
Written Review by David Carter
In 2017 it’s great to see a crop of young fresh filmmakers emerging with ideas that feel not only fully fleshed out, but ideas and scenarios that feel lived-in and universal. One movie in particular that strikes this balance is Ingrid Goes West. The first feature film from director/writer Matt Spicer and writer David Branson Smith have done a great job walking the tightrope of crafting complicated characters who aren’t necessarily likable but you feel an empathy for their struggle. This isn’t a navel gazy or moralist tale about vapid L.A. or social media culture (though it certainly plays a part), but a story about damaged people and their survival instincts in the 21st century. In addition to all of the texture this movie has to offer, it also taps into a vein that Martin Scorsese was mining in the early and mid-80’s. Dark and sometimes comedic odysseys into worlds where all of the people feel real to the environments and how the (sometimes sociopathic) protagonist shifts and morphs into whatever they need to be to get by in that environment.
Ingrid Goes West explores the exterior and more importantly the interior life of someone struggling not only with mental illness but the loss of a loved one. When we meet Ingrid Thorburn (Aubrey Plaza, who in 2017 has proven to be one of our most indispensable dramatic and comedic talents) she is ostensibly at her lowest point. Sitting in a van outside of a wedding reception, scanning the brides Instagram feed with manic puffy red eyes. You can tell she’s at a breaking point, and like a flimsy tree branch supporting a grown man playing on a tire swing, she snaps. She assaults the bride for not being invited to the wedding. Ingrid is devastated. She’s liked every post and commented like a loyal “stan.” How could she be left in the cold like this? After a stint in a mental rehabilitation facility, Ingrid goes back to Instagram, the only remaining constant in her life and discovers another social media celeb to imprint on. Taylor Sloan (a SoCal soaked Elizabeth Olsen) embodies everything Ingrid wants. On her phone screen she’s a woman living her greatest possible life. High-end eateries, a relationship with an artist, effortlessly beautiful, intelligent, and a lovingly large follower count. Taylor is the modern day American dream, someone who can be whatever she want’s to be in the world of double tapped likes and #nofilter photography. Ingrid wants a slice of that dream, takes the 63,000 dollar inheritance left to her by her mother, throws it in a backpack and heads for the land of opportunity.
The film’s title is an allusion to the West as this wild and untamed place where you could go to become whatever you wanted. If you were poor you could get lucky and strike gold. If you were a criminal out East, you could now become sheriff. For Ingrid, this means a new identity as someone who is simply not a freak or a loser. What doesn’t immediately dawn on her is that the people she idolizes from an iPhone have done the same thing for the same reasons, and the one person she does meet and make a connection with who is genuine (O’Shea Jackson Jr. as the Batman loving Dan Pinto who will charm the pants off of every single person who sees this movie. I’m still looking for my pants. Where are they O’Shea?) she takes them for granted and uses them. She stalks and lies to her targets and hopes for things to come together in her favor. Her modus operandi bears a striking resemblance to the lead character in Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy, Rupert Pupkin.
Ruppert isn’t so much trying to reinvent himself or escape anything, but rather seeking the approval and adoration he can only get from his idol Jerry Langford (late great Jerry Lewis in his best role) and the millions who watch Jerry’s show, the same way Ingrid pursues Taylor and those who follow her on Instagram. Ruppert’s a sociopathic two-bit comedian, but that doesn’t matter because in his mind he’s owed his 15 minutes of fame and he’ll stoop to whatever levels to obtain those minutes. Like Ingrid, you don’t view Rupert as a monster, just unscrupulous in their actions. They both clearly need professional help and are struggling with past trauma but for them, notoriety is the only healing they want. Like Ruppert says during his final stand-up routine “Better to be king for a night than a schmuck for a lifetime.” For Ingrid, the quote would probably read “Better to be a queen online than a freak in the real world.” And given her situation, you might find it hard to disagree.
But for all the comparisons there are to make to other films, the movie stands on its own merits. Ingrid as a character feels unique and so of this time. We all have our vices and escapes, but the thrall of following the perceived lives of people we don’t know and will most likely never meet can be a strong one for a generation who’ve pretty much grown up on interacting and connecting with people’s online identities. Spicer and Smith don’t judge the people or the practice but do want to dig into the psychologies of those who embrace the lifestyle. What they dig up aren’t hollow shells but rather people just looking for acceptance. However, those people got lost (or maybe just changed) in the journey for that acceptance. Can the image you present of yourself online and amongst other social climbers be the real one if you chose to believe it with every fiber of your being? The movie doesn’t offer any answers, but it’s definitely a question that’s relevant to the ubiquity of the social media lifestyle. There used to be a distinct separation of online or the real world but we’ve finally reached a place as a culture where those lines aren’t just blurry, they’re being erased. You can’t deny the bad (“fringe” communities that helped get our current president elected) and the good (conversations and positive developments about identity, race, gender and socioeconomic disparity) effects the internet has on the real world. That erasure of the line extends to social media. The way people present themselves online might as well be the real thing for their followers. At least as a follower, you have something to aspire to. Even if the image you aspire may be considered a lie.