Often when a film tries to skewer a zeitgeisty topic, it can come off feeling like the creator is trying to prove they’re down with the kids, when actually they’re way off the mark. It’s a relief to report then, that Ingrid Goes West – which I recently saw when it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival 2017 – perfectly skewers Instagram culture. *insert Praise Hands emoji here*
If you haven’t heard of the film yet (and as Sundance is something of a launchpad for cult-indie-favourites-in-the-making, chances are you might not have done), I’ll bring you up to speed. Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation’s April Ludgate), is the Ingrid of the title. Obsessively following a friend’s social media account, she takes offence to not being invited to said friend's wedding, so shows up unannounced and pepper-sprays the bride in the face.
Going viral for the wrong reasons, she’s institutionalised, and upon release she sets about reinventing herself. Shunned by her community (did you read the bit about her pepper-spraying a bride on her wedding day?) she takes the inheritance money left by her mother and heads west to LA. Waiting there is the new object of her online desire/envy: Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen). Taylor’s a social media influencer who’s making a living from her picture-perfect lifestyle, endorsing home-furnishings and avocado toast through her much-followed Instagram account.
A well-prepared ‘chance’ encounter brings Ingrid into Taylor’s orbit; Ingrid’s stalking/preparation pays off as the pair soon become fast friends. The leads’ performances are one of the elements that really make the film work. Neither shy away from the absurdity of their respective ranks in the Instagram hierarchy, nor do they allow their characters to become completely one-dimensional, even as they're both clearly very driven in their individual ambitions, and both obviously suffer from comparable delusions. Plaza finds something human in Ingrid’s desperation, and even though she’s on the extreme end of the spectrum, she manages to remain relatable; we’ve all had a deep-dive on the Insta account of a rival/crush/ex, right? And we all know how easy it is to fall for the streamlined, idealised vision of a life projected via a social media account, where anything imperfect remains unshared and unseen.
Olsen – best known for dramatic indies and the MCU’s Scarlet Witch – gets to demonstrate her comedy chops as a vapid Valley Girl aiming for profundity. In an early voiceover she nails the ridiculousness of that particular type of lifestyle-porn Instagram captioning, but crucially she’s believable, rather than an out-and-out caricature. Her past is never revealed, but it’s obvious she wasn’t always the ‘star’ she is by the time Ingrid notices her. There’s something almost Scorsese-ish about Plaza’s performance, meanwhile. Many early reviews have compared her character to The King of Comedy’s Rupert Pupkin; they share a sinister quality that arises from skewed good intentions, as well as a relentless intensity. Plaza is a producer on this project, and she’s certainly found a plum role for herself.
With its focus on social media, Ingrid Goes West feels almost like an episode of Black Mirror at times, only one set in the present day with tech that actually exists. The Bryce Dallas Howard-starring episode, Nosedive, is the most obvious comparison, with its anxiety-inducing points-scoring turning the online popularity contest into something literal. While there’s no fanciful tech or sci-fi gadgets in Ingrid Goes West, it does push you to consider your own addiction to scrolling through snap after filtered snap, as well as confronting the image you present of yourself online. Not that Instagram is presented in a particularly negative light – the film takes an even-handed approach that neither condones or condemns, but instead looks at how its co-opted by particular personalities. As the tension ratchets up, and Ingrid struggles to keep her deceit under wraps, there’s an escalating darkness at play that chimes with Black Mirror’s tendency to look at tech that appeals to our worst selves. But, I’m making it sound like a horror movie now. It’s ultimately a dark comedy about obsession, and a funny one at that, with plenty of Batman jokes (seriously).
Ingrid Goes West has been turned around fast enough to still be relevant. It’s easy to imagine that it might seem like a document of a very specific moment in the not too distant future. Instagram might be very now, but the themes of identity envy and projected personas are likely to ring true long after Instagram finds itself in the app-dumpster in the sky, supplanted by a newer, cooler social medium. After all, Snapchat: The Movie is surely just around the corner.
Ingrid Goes West is awaiting a release date.